The Pharoah’s Lesson on Addiction
One of modern psychology’s most researched topics is the phenomenon of addiction. We certainly know more about it today than at any point in human history. Still, most people still assume that addicts are deliberately amoral individuals, and that they simply lack inner strength and willpower. The medical literature and numerous studies reveal quite a different story.
Addiction is an extremely complex disease, and overcoming it requires much more than acknowledging the problem and having the desire to be rid of it.
Without getting into a discussion about chemical dependence, it is clear that the trigger that leads to addiction has nothing to do with the chemical, and everything to do with a desire or need to engage in self-destructive behavior. People who compulsively use drugs, or smoke, or abuse alcohol, nearly always start doing so long before they have any kind of physical addiction. This explains how people can frequently switch addictions from one drug to another, or even from drugs to a non-drug form of addictive behavior.
Beginning in the early 1960s, one of the most effective and widely used forms of addiction treatment has been a method known as direct intervention. This involves close family and friends, accompanied by a mental health professional, staging an ambush-style meeting with the addict to explain how those close to him have been harmed by his behavior — and then appealing to him to seek treatment, using the leverage of consequences if it is not sought.
A compulsive gambler, alcoholic or drug addict will ultimately lose his family, or its status and material possessions, and could even lose his life, as a direct consequence of being enslaved by his addiction. The intervention dramatically dangles these dire consequences in front of the addict, while offering him or her the chance to prevent this from happening and seeking hep.
Another form of intervention is known as “forcible intervention.” This last-resort type of intervention involves implementing drastic consequences on the addict, such as the loss of his or her civil liberties. Such an intervention will only ever be used in a situation where the addict is a danger to himself or those around him.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been studying the strange story of Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the Jews out of Egypt, I was struck by the thought that the addict/intervention paradigm fits very neatly into this narrative, and can help us explain a number of puzzling aspects that have vexed commentators for millennia.
Hundreds of years before our current parsha, God had told Abraham that his descendants would one day experience slavery in a foreign country, before being miraculously redeemed, after which they would return triumphantly to the Promised Land. But at no point in His covenant with Abraham did God suggest external actors would be involved in the story.
Strangely enough, however, the Exodus story seems to be far more about Pharaoh than it is about the Jews. They seem entirely marginal to the narrative as Moses and Pharaoh spar, while Egypt sinks ever deeper into an abyss of supernatural chaos. Even more troubling than this is the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart by God, as explicitly stated in the narrative (Exodus 9:12). Why would God do that, and how could a man — and his country — be punished, if God induced all of his actions?
Ultimately, the Exodus story is a narrative that runs parallel to the Plagues and Pharaoh story. The Exodus story recalls the events surrounding Jewish slavery followed by their redemption, as promised to Abraham; the Plagues and Pharaoh story has a different purpose: it describes the insidiousness of evil, thatultimately destroys those in its thrall, along with all those to whom they are connected.
Pharaoh is the epitome of an addict — compulsively and uncontrollably doing the same things again and again, long after it has become evident that he is battling against forces that far outstrip his ability to counter them. Moses began the process of weaning him of his addiction with a well-constructed direct intervention involving consequences, but Pharaoh refused to play ball. So the intervention process escalated into a full-on forcible intervention, where a nightmare range of consequences clamped down on Pharaoh and Egypt, with the aim of compelling him to give up his addiction.
Then, in the final chapter, he receives a gift every addict truly craves: the strength to withstand any attempt to separate him from his addiction of choice. But Pharaoh’s strength was really his greatest weakness, a destructive force that would have consequences on his country long after the Jews had gone.
Although we may be living 3,500 years later, Pharaoh-type addicts still abound, and you can be sure that nothing has changed.