How We Relate to God Depends On How We Relate to Others
Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )
"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Joseph" (Exodus 1:8).
The Talmud quotes two opinions: It was either a new king or the existing monarch with new policies, who acted as if he “did not know of Joseph” (Sotah 11a). The Midrash follows the second opinion, and states that when the Egyptians turned against the Jews, Pharaoh refused to go along with them and they deposed him for three months, until he yielded to their wishes (Shemos Rabbah 1:9).
Is it not amazing that the king who said to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39), now says to Moses, “Who is God that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know God” (Exodus 5:2)?
Rabbi Meir Rubman cites Mishnas R' Eliezer: “The reason the Torah is so harsh regarding an ingrate is because denial of gratitude toward another person is tantamount to denial of gratitude toward God. Today one denies gratitude toward a fellow man, and the next day he denies gratitude toward God. All of Egypt knew that Joseph had saved their land, as did Pharaoh. However, Pharaoh chose to deny gratitude toward Joseph, and thereafter denied God, saying, “Who is God that I should heed His voice? #133; I do not know God” (Lekach Tov, Shemos p. 5)
How we relate to God depends on how we relate to other people. When the Baal Shem Tov was asked, How can one develop a love for God? How can one love a Being that one cannot see or have any sense experience of Him? He responded, “Love your fellow man. This will lead you to love of God.” Indeed, the Talmud says that the way a human being can cleave unto God is to emulate His traits: “Just as He is merciful, you should be merciful” (Shabbos 133a).
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman shares another insight with us. The Midrash says that Pharaoh initially resisted his people's demands that he enslave Jews, because he felt indebted to Joseph and to Jacob's blessing the land. However, when expedience required that he persecute the Jews in order to retain his throne, he became a cruel tyrant, enslaving them and ordering their children to be killed. This shows us that a person is capable of altering his emotions. A person may not say, “That's me. That's just the way I am.”
Pharaoh underwent an emotional change because of his desire to keep his position. Just as a person can alter one's emotions negatively, so can one change one's emotions positively. Pharaoh was motivated by expedience. A person can also be motivated by a sincere conviction to do what is right. One need only realize which emotions are proper and have a sincere desire to cultivate them.
People who do not wish to put forth the effort to modify their character traits may say, “I was born that way.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman says in Tanya, “It is an inborn capacity that the intellect can be master over the emotions.” The ability to change is an inborn trait. In fact, it is the most significant distinguishing feature between man and other living things. A person who denies his ability to alter his character is lowering himself to a subhuman level. Our dignity should not allow us to do this.