Sunday, February 24, 2013

Breaking a Hardened Heart: Parshat Va'era

The second week's reading from the book of Exodus says repeatedly that when Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and gave him God's message "Let my people go," Pharaoh "hardened his heart, and did not listen."  That makes it seem as if the Egyptian ruler simply and freely decided he wanted to keep on enslaving the Israelites no matter what. 

Yet the text also says that Pharaoh did not listen to them "as God had said." That addition makes it seem as if Pharaoh's free will was in fact quite limited, since his choice was predictable.  Exodus also describes Pharaoh's reaction to God's message in a third way: "God hardened Pharaoh's heart."  And that makes it seem as if Pharaoh had no choice in the matter at all. 

How can we make sense of these apparently different readings, and what can we learn from them?

Traditional Jewish sources have come up with more than one way to understand the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.  One interpretation says free will and an all-knowing God can indeed coexist.  "The Bible is clear that God has a role in determining human affairs, and equally clear that, in most cases, human beings have the ability to choose between right and wrong," as correctly summarized at   "Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given" (Rabbi Akiva, Pirkei Avoth 3:15).  On this view, God can know that Pharaoh may possibly harden his own heart--or that he will choose to--or God may even intervene to make it more likely--and yet the choice is ultimately up to Pharaoh. 

Other interpretations are equally possible.  We could read "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" as an idiomatic expression.  Why in the world would Pharaoh react so harshly and continue so obstinately?  It defies normal human behavior.  It is unexplainable in human terms.  Things that are unexplainable are attributed to God.  (Insurance companies do the same thing today when they call certain natural disasters "acts of God" and refuse to insure against them!) 

Or, we could say that Pharaoh begins by hardening his own heart against the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and their hope of redemption, and that hardness becomes a habit.  By the end of this week's reading, refusal has become a part of him: it is his character.  He desires to become unchangeable in a way that no human being can be.  He desires to become God.  And the desire to become God hardens Pharaoh's heart. 

Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, argues for that last interpretation.  She points out that in Egypt, rulers did claim to be gods.  They postulated that they had created the Nile, when the Nile had created Egyptian civilization and given the Pharaohs their power.  They believed that the well-being of the land depended on them, when of course it was the reverse. 

To admit human frailty (using my political terms here, rather than Zornberg's psychoanalytic terms) would be to de-legitimize their own rule.  So the Pharaoh of the Exodus story heroically refuses to admit that he is anything less than God, over and over...until the death of his firstborn son finally makes him face his own humanity and mortality.

What can we learn from this story?  I think, actually, it is a question of how we can learn.  Will we try to make ourselves impermeable to persuasion, like Pharaoh?  Then we risk being taught a heartbreaking lesson. 

Can we open ourselves to the voice of the weak, the oppressed, the unexpected, or the amazing?  Then we invite the possibility of learning something new, like Moses standing before a burning bush and hearing the voice that commands freedom.

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