Dan's Drash:

Parashat Va-era

Exodus 6:2 - 9:35

Adonai spoke to Moses, "See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 7:1-3)


 This parashah begins with God reaffirming the Covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: the Israelites will be brought back to Canaan, to the Land they were promised. But first, Pharaoh and his people have to be shown who's boss around here. Otherwise, one might think that the liberation was an act of largess on the part of Pharoah, not God's doing! As the  Etz Chayim chumash notes, "this is important not so much to burnish God's reputation but to establish the principle that is is unacceptable for one human being to reduce another human being to slavery; that freedom is the will of God and not the choice of a despot."


Next comes the theatrics: magic tricks involving staffs and snakes, disappearing leposy (now you see it, now you don't!) and then when Pharaoh is unimpressed, the plagues begin. The Nile, considered a god/the Giver of Life to the Egyptians, is turned to blood (a symbol of death). The fish die, the people have to dig wells to find water to drink. After a week, Moses goes back to Pharaoh and threatens him with...frogs. Seemingly somewhat amusing, frogs everywhere weren't all that much fun, and Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and agrees to let the people go if they would only remove the gazillion frogs from Egypt. The frogs die, then Pharaoh reneges on his deal. Next come vermin, then wild beasts (or swarms of insects--the translation could mean either), pestilence, boils, and hail/fire from the heavens. And still, Pharaoh repeatedly reneges on letting the Israelites leave Egypt. The Hebrew phrases that are used after the first 5 plagues are translated as "Pharaoh hardened his heart", or "his heart was stiffened", but then there is dramatic change in the text. After the plague of boils (the sixth of the ten plagues), it says "God stiffened the heart of the Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses" (Ex. 9:12; see the opening quote, above).


What we are witnessing is somewhat theologically disturbing: Pharaoh has lost his free will! God is now "using" him, allowing Pharaoh's evil nature to take control. "But wait, don't we all have unlimited opportunities for t'shuvah?", you may ask. Apparently not; Pharaoh can no longer repent--after 5 opportunities to do so, his arrogance and presumptuousness can only lead to its inevitable conclusion. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, "Those in whom viciousness becomes second nature, those in whom brutality is linked with haughtiness, forfeit their ability and therefore their right" to the gift of free will. And as Maimonides writes, "Sometimes a man's offense is so grave that he forecloses the possibility of his own repentance. At first Pharaoh sinned repeatedly of his own free will, until he forfeited the capacity to repent." Erich Fromm says it better: "Pharaoh's heart hardens because he keeps doing evil. It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible. The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes..until there is no longer any freedom of choice left him." 


What do you think?


                                    שבת שלום                                       Shabbat shalom