Good Lessons from Bad People


Photo: David Holt London

Jerks.  Bad people.  Annoying people.  Mean people.  We all inevitably will be faced with the challenge of having to deal with these characters at some point in our lives.  Some of us may even interact daily with these types of negative people.  For me, there is something about such individuals that I actually enjoy.  No, I do not consider myself incredibly adept at dealing with such people on a day-to-day basis, and if I had to engage them constantly I very well might choose to run away rather than face up, but all-in-all there’s something that I truly enjoy about the “bad guys” of life.

Let’s take a look at some of the most classic bad guys of all times, of course the obvious names like Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden, or reaching back in history, Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun, Ivan the Terrible and many other “indisputables” might find their way on the list.  There are the (relatively) “small scale” bad guys, like Jeffrey Dahmer types.  (When I say small scale, I’m only referring to the number of people murdered, Dahmer certainly rivals the worst of them with his insatiable appetite for heinous crime.)

What am I getting at?

Let’s answer that question, in typical Jewish fashion, with a question.  How do you learn?  I don’t just mean “how do you attain book-smarts?”  I mean how do you learn in order to shape what you should do in a certain situation?  Many would say that they learn through trial and error.  You start the diet, it fails, you readjust accordingly…that kind of learning.

Our Jewish tradition has a tremendously powerful adage:  Who is wise?  The one who learns from all people.  This is generally understood that if we learn from the behaviors, attitudes and perspectives of others and incorporate that wisdom into our daily lives, we will be the better off.  But if we look carefully at one of the words in the adage we will realize something important, the word “all” as in the “one who learns from ALL people.”  All means that every person in the world has something to teach us, from the ebullience of the 2 year old to the sagacious deliberation of the septuagenarian.

With that, we turn to the lessons of a nefarious despot in our history (and our portion)…Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh in Egypt certainly would have attained ranked status on the list of demonic villains. Bathing in children’s blood, torturing and enslaving an entire population for a few hundred years…yeah, he’s on the list.

So what can we learn from such a malevolent monster?

To this we turn to our portion:  After a year of horrific plagues, Pharaoh is once again warned that if he does not allow the Jews to leave Egypt, his country will be hit with the devastating plague of “death of the firstborn.”  Unrelenting and stubborn, Pharaoh will not submit to the pressure that Moses (Moshe) has imposed upon him.  Net result: the entire country is hit with the plague on the exact day and time that Moshe had forewarned.  Death instantly pervades the land.  For our purposes we want to use Google Earth to get a glimpse of what Pharaoh was doing in preparation for the inevitable calamity that was to befall his people.  That is, what measures did Pharaoh take to proactively preempt the major ordeal his nation would face?

“And Pharaoh arose…and he called Moshe…” ask the commentators, where was Pharaoh arising from?  Answer:  He arose from his bed.  Huh?  Pharaoh went to sleep that night?!?  How in the world did he have the gumption, nay the equanimity to lie down and go to sleep despite the forewarning of doom that lorded over his nation?!  This is something to take pause and learn from.  In the face of great adversity Pharaoh was able to compartmentalize and go to sleep.  An amazing lesson indeed!  Misplaced, crooked and warped, yes…but noteworthy nonetheless.

This could not have been easy.  To train his mind to completely dismiss a major disaster and call “lights out!”  When put in a proper and correct context many of us could use a dose of such high levels of equanimity.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Pharaoh’s usage of the trait in this instance was harmful and improper, but the extent to which he was capable of maintaining mastery over his thoughts is quite astounding.  A lesson from the bad guy.

Our take home:  Don’t become a nefarious despot.  But do learn from everyone.  Learn from their positive traits.  Learn from their negative ones.  Even learn from Pharaoh how a positive trait (like equanimity) can be misused, and how a negative one can be used for good. Watch, observe and learn.

Shabbat Shalom