How to Deal with Difficult People Published in the Baltimore Jewish Times January 14, 2005
Have you ever felt stuck in a relationship with a difficult person, unable to get your message through, powerless to change the situation? This week’s parsha, Bo, tells the story of the last three of the Ten Plagues unleashed against Pharaoh—the quintessential difficult person. In today’s language, we might say that Pharaoh was abusive, obsessed with control. And the Jewish people, his slaves, initially saw no way to free themselves from his tyranny. (As a side note, it is interesting and significant that this year, this parsha coincides with the weekend preceding Martin Luther King day, which honors a man who fought for civil rights and freedom.)
Pharaoh had lured the Jewish people into servitude under false pretenses with the promise of food and financial reward. Once under his power, he tormented the Jews verbally and emotionally—through coercion, threats, mind games, intimidation, put-downs and humiliation. Furthermore, he oppressed them physically, by forcing them to do backbreaking labor under the crack of the whip.
The dynamic between Pharaoh and the Jews is much like the relationship between an abuser and victim. Like many targets of abuse, the Jewish people felt hopeless, mired in a rut, resigned to a life of misery. But the door to freedom opened when Moshe and Aharon were called by G-d to intervene on their behalf, demanding of Pharaoh to "Let My People Go."
Moshe, a Jew who was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in the king’s palace, was in a unique position to be the Jews’ advocate. But convincing Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery was a task that demanded patience, strength, faith, a good dose of psychology—and miracles.
At first, Moshe and Aharon’s pleas were not able to soften Pharaoh’s "hardened heart." Although Pharaoh would frequently appear to be giving in, he would always backtrack later. He made commitments and promises, then broke them soon after—true to the persona of the classic abuser. But the brothers persevered. Finally, G-d asserted His full strength with the final plagues, empowering the Jewish people for the ultimate getaway. They fled from Egypt, sheltered under G-d’s protection in the wilderness.
Most of us can relate to this story. While we are not literally slaves, we may at times have a self-defeating "slave mentality" to habits or circumstances. We may have felt helpless in a situation that seemed to have no way out. Sometimes we dealt with stubborn people who, while not quite as extreme in their behavior as Pharaoh, are unwilling to compromise or give in. On a global level, the world is facing bullies who terrorize others through violence. How can our parsha shed light on these challenges?
The turning point for the Jews came when Moshe and Aharon stepped in. The oppression had to stop. Not another day would pass without taking action. With G-d’s power behind them, they implemented their strategy, step by step. By persisting through obstacles and opposition, they ultimately succeeded in freeing the Jews from slavery.
In our own lives, there may or may not be such a dramatic turnabout. Change may come gradually, but the pattern is the same. We first recognize the problem we are facing and commit to finding a solution. We must then make a corrective plan of action and follow through with determination. Sometimes our own emotional resources are not enough to pull us up. We might need to turn to someone, whether family, a friend, a professional, or spiritual leader, to advocate for us, to be our voice in negotiating with someone difficult. This is not weakness; it is a sign of strength to know when we need help.
In our lives, we also need G-d’s help and protection to surmount difficulties. When we don’t feel strong enough on our own, we can draw on G-d’s infinite strength, through the power of prayer. In the parsha, the Jews needed Moshe and Aharon to speak up on their behalf. Moshe and Aharon were given their mission by G-d. They could not have succeeded without divine assistance. Like Moshe and Aharon, each of us has a mission with a personal connection to the Almighty, which gives us the ability to accomplish what might at first seem impossible.
May we free ourselves from whatever is holding us back, and help one another to overcome challenges. In this way, we will bring peace and dignity to ourselves, our families, our communities, and hopefully to the entire world. Shabbat Shalom.