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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-era 5756
Exodus 6:2-9:35
January 20, 1996     28 Tevet 5756

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

"To harden the heart" is a figure of speech that goes back to the book of Exodus. Associated with Pharaoh's defiance of God's recurring plea, "Let My people go that they may worship Me," it conjures up an image of the most human of organs turned to stone, drained of all feeling for the other. Neither the suffering of his Israelite slaves nor the devastation of his Egyptian subjects by the plagues arouses in Pharaoh any trace of anguish or compassion. It is an image worthy of the 20th century, when totalitarian despots sacrificed untold millions of fellow humans on the altar of ideology!

The motif occurs no less than twenty times in the course of the exodus story. Though concrete and graphic, it does pose a theological problem. Half the references attribute the loss of feeling to divine intent: God appears to strip Pharaoh of the capacity to respond affirmatively. At the beginning of our parasha, we (and Moses) are forewarned: "But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (Exodus 7:3)." The intrusion runs roughshod over the basic principle of free will, on which the entire superstructure of Jewish law rests. Without the ability to make the good prevail in us or to control our passions, we can hardly be held accountable by God for our actions.

It is this contradiction that the midrash tried to soften, if not resolve, on the verse: "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them... (Exodus 10:1)." The midrash is based on the striking fact that in the narrative of the first five plagues, not God but Pharaoh hardens his heart. In each case the biblical text leaves God out of the picture (Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7). Only when we come to the sixth plague, that of boils, does the Torah declare God to be the cause of Pharaoh's hardheartedness: "But the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses (Exodus 9:12)." Thereafter, except for the seventh plague (Exodus 9:34-35), God assumes direct responsibility for Pharaoh's callousness (Exodus 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8).

It is a pattern that only the most attentive of readers would ever detect. The midrash makes of it a cautionary note on the subject of free will. We are not quite as unrestricted as we would like to believe. The consequences of earlier deeds and habits continue to bedevil us. That is why Pharaoh lost the capacity to do teshuva, to make a mid-course correction in his life.

According to the midrash, God will warn a person gone astray several times. If the response is persistently obtuse and inflexible, God will eventually desist and close the door to teshuva in order to exact punishment for the sins committed.

This is what happened in the case of the wicked Pharaoh. God sent five warnings to which he paid no attention. Finally, God said to him: `You stiffened your neck and hardened your heart. I now will render you still more vile.' Hence the text read: `For I have hardened his heart.'
How ironic that Pharaoh becomes a lesson on the limits of repentance! His sustained assault against Joseph's people had inured him to the cries of the afflicted. Egyptian fear of Israel's numbers may have prompted the original decision to enslave them, but it was the lavish profits born of that slave labor which made the decision irreversible. And greed, not fear, drove Pharaoh to his death in a vain effort to recover the slaves he had freed unwillingly. "What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service (Exodus 14:4)?"

Clearly, the motivation of Pharaoh's oppressive policy had shifted from self-protection to self-enrichment, and as it did it became ever less susceptible to alteration. Would America's South have ever voluntarily ended its economic dependence on a form of labor grown morally repulsive? Neither leadership had the capacity any longer of radical change without great violence. The Civil War was as necessary and inevitable as the Ten Plagues.

This is the deeper meaning of our midrash. Judaism's belief in the human capacity to change, to do teshuva, stands in marked contrast to the notion that surfaces often in the history of Christianity, that our fate is wholly predetermined by God, a function of God's free and sovereign grace. For all God's grandeur, Judaism never denied humanity its own space, in which its destiny, individually and collectively, is shaped exclusively by human hands.

And yet, reality moderates our faith. Experience testifies that human freedom is never absolute. A person unloved as a child will have great difficulty loving as an adult. Behavior patterns are no less addictive than drugs. Judaism takes the middle ground. With enough faith, support and determination most habits can be broken, most paths rerouted, most relationship restored. The primary function of Judaism is to alert us before it is too late. This is the reason for an annual season of introspection that offers us a reprieve but not a clean slate. At its peak moments of intensity (during the recitation of the u-netane tokef) we declaim mutedly that "Penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree."

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch



The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld