January 20, 2012

This week presents us with a difficult question.  Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, asking that he allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, Pharaoh listens to their request but refuses to let the people go, and then a terrible plague is sent to punish Egypt and cajole Pharaoh into changing his mind.  The same cycle we all know is repeated ten times.  Each time the Egyptian ruler seems to indicate that he is ready to say yes to the demand for freedom put forth by Aaron and Moses.  Then, mysteriously, his “heart hardens.”

The difficult question is what the Torah means by “hardening of the heart.”  What happened to Pharaoh each time he was about to say yes and instead said no?  Was God overriding the Egyptian ruler or playing with him like a puppet on strings?  Or, was Pharaoh freely making his own decisions?

Interpreters point out that the Torah mentions the “hardening” by Pharaoh 20 times.  The first 10 have to do with the first five plagues, and in each case we are told that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.”  Clearly, it would seem that whatever is happening is being caused by Pharaoh.  Yet the next ten references to the “hardened heart” are different.  They occur with the last five plagues, and in each we are told that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”  It seems that God, not Pharaoh, is in control and is bringing about the change in Pharaoh’s heart.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Torah uses there different Hebrew words to describe the “hardening.”  The first is kashah, meaning “to be hard altogether, to let everything pass over one without making any impression.”  The second is kaved, meaning “heavy.”  One can receive impressions, but there can be a big gap between the impression and the moment one lets oneself be guided by this impression.  Finally, the Torah uses the word chazak, meaning “firm,” consciously opposing any pliancy, any submission.  Hirsch argues that “Pharaoh’s coldness, his apathetic insensibility” was used by God so that “all subsequent ages could derive a knowledge and conviction of the Almightiness, the Presence, and the Direction of God in human history.”  Never again, Hirsch says, would there be a “necessity for miracles.”  In other words, God pulled the strings and directed the choices for the Egyptian ruler.  God made his heart kashahkaved, and chazak in order to demonstrate where the power and control really is!  It is obvious, God has not graced us with any (overt) miracles since Moses's time and as it is so often said “may it be speedily in our day.”

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan is troubled by an explanation similar to the one offered by Hirsch.  In contrast, he reasoned that if God is pulling all the strings, and Pharaoh has no free choice, then the Egyptian ruler could not be held responsible for his choices.  That would mean that none of us is really free and that our choices between acts of love or hatred, caring or selfishness, justice or indifference are an illusion.  Resh Lakish (Third Century CE) in the Midrash Exodus Rabbah 13:3 and Maimonides centuries later both emphasize that it was not God who forced Pharaoh to do evil toIsrael, but the decision was his alone.  Maimonides adds in his commentary that Judaism believes in free will, but that one bad choice in life will lead to another just as one good choice will lead to another.

Modern psychologist Erich Fromm notes that Pharaoh’s first choices to continue persecuting and oppression the Israelites ultimately led him to a point of no return.  He must have thought that “if I give in to their demands and do not stiffen my heart and rule them harshly, then both the Jews and the Egyptians will conclude that I am weak and will rebel.”  Trapped by fear of failure and unable to develop creative solutions to his problems, Pharaoh fell victim to his own bad decisions.  Tragically, he chose the steep path and, once he came plunging down it was like the new drinking cup I handed Benny as we were walking down the hill last Shabbat.  It was “gone” the moment he dropped it!

The last few weeks I have focused on leadership, both related to the upcoming Presidential election and locally.  As many of you know, I have spent the significant time over the last 10 days engulfed in the closing of the ReubenGittlemanHebrewDay Schooland the attempt to initiate the new Rockland Jewish Academy.  We can learn a great deal from our scholars both past and present.  In order for the RocklandCountynon-Orthodox community to survive and propser, we need to not allow our hearts to be hardened.  Instead let us learn from the past and create a better CSI community, a new successful day school, and an invigorated RocklandCountykehilah.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham