this the text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/16/16 –
There are certain ideas in the Torah that for whatever reason seem to capture people’s attention. They come back to these ideas again and again, struggling to understand them, learn about them, or come to terms with them. Perhaps the most obvious example in the Torah is the binding of Isaac story. But as compelling as that story is, and as well as we know it, I am asked more often about another idea that appears in the narrative of the Exodus. We find it both in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and in this week’s portion, called Bo.
We are all familiar with the story. In the process of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God brings a series of how many plagues against the Egyptians? 10! After each plague Pharaoh is on the verge of letting the people go, fearful that another plague will soon appear. But each time, before he acts and frees the Israelites, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened” or “strengthened” and therefore he decided not to let the people go.
What troubles people – what people ask me about each year when we read these stories – is that it seems to be God Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. God says as much in a conversation with Moses: ואני אקשה את לב פרעה “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3) When I study the text with people, they often ask: “How could God do that? Why didn’t God allow Pharaoh to let the people go after the first plague? It almost doesn’t seem fair, and in the end, the Egyptians paid for it as much as Pharaoh himself.” In other words, how could a just God, Who created human beings with freedom of choice, not allow Pharaoh to make his own choice, repent, and let the people go?
As is so often the case the classical commentators struggle with the same issues that we modern readers do. They offer a variety of explanations for this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The medieval exegete Nachmanides cites two different explanations. The first is that some sins are so destructive they make repentance impossible. In this case, Pharaoh was deliberately attempting to destroy the Israelites, and so God did not see fit to grant Pharaoh the free choice enjoyed by others. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was a way of ensuring Pharaoh’s punishment would match his crime.
The second explanation that Nachmanides offers is based on a close textual reading. Although we commonly think that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues, when we pay careful attention to the text we discover that through the first five plagues God does not do any “heart hardening.” Instead, Pharaoh seems to be the cause of his own troubles. For example, after the plague of Arov, wild beasts, the Torah tells us: ויכבד פרעה את לבו – “Pharaoh hardened his own heart.” So the sense from the first five plagues is that Pharaoh DID have free choice; but each time, he chose wrongly. Then by the sixth plague, Pharaoh’s free choice is taken away, and God does indeed begin to harden his heart.
This pattern is something we have probably all seen in our own lives. A person who makes a series of poor choices, who continues to do the wrong thing time and again by choice, will eventually find themselves in a position where they can no longer choose. They find themselves in a place where they are boxed in by the behavior they have enacted and the choices and mistakes they have made. This is something that can happen not only in the lives of individuals, but also in families.
My guess would be we can all probably think of a family we know that struggles with some kind of deep division. It might be a brother not talking to another brother or sister, it might be a child estranged from a parent, and sometimes it even extends so you’ll have an entire part of a family not communicating with another part of the family. You may remember one of my favorite scenes from the Barry Levinson film Avalon. There are two brothers at the heart of the film, Sam and Gabrielle. It is Thanksgiving day, and Sam and the entire extended family are seated and waiting to eat. But the Gabrielle and his wife are late. The family waits and waits, and finally Same tells them to cut the turkey and begin the meal. A short time later Gabrielle arrives. He walks in, he sees them eating, and he is outraged. “You cut the turkey without me!” he yells again and again, and he storms out. It is a hysterical scene, but it also cuts to the chase, because many of us have been there. The question is, how did we get there in the first place?
Believe it or not, all too often the answer to that question is nobody knows. There was a sleight at some point – the turkey was cut! And then someone storms out. The other feels insulted – how could my brother behave that way? And then both wait for a phone call of apology. And wait. And wait some more. When it doesn’t come, they get angrier, and they begin to remember older hurts and slights which lie just under the surface. Then they happen to bump into each other at the bank, and both turn their backs, refusing to speak or even make eye contact. And then the next thing, and the next. And before you know it, because of a series of choices they made, one after the other, they no longer have a choice – their hearts are hardened. Like Pharaoh they are boxed in and they can’t get out. And by the time they get to the rabbi’s office – which they often do – the anger is too deep, the gap too wide, and the hurt too painful for anything to change.
Some of you may remember the author Steven Covey and his best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That book was required reading when I was at the Seminary, and truth be told I don’t remember all that much from it. But there was a chapter about personal change, in which the following quote appears: “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”
It seems to me the message is clear. Every choice we make is important in our lives. Each time we choose, the impact of our decision is not only found in the present – it also potentially carries into the future. Every poor choice sets us back and makes it harder for us to become the people we are intended by God to be. Every wise and noble choice moves us forward, and opens up future possibilities of goodness and meaning in our lives, in our families, and in our world.
May we remember that and act upon it every day –