In parashat Va’era („And I appeared“) we learn more about the relationship between God and the Jewish people and about the promise to give the Land of Israel to the people. God tells Moses that the time has come to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. As Moses feels that he is not the right person to represent the Jewish people, God appoints Moses bother Aaron to accompany him as the spokesperson. The two brothers appear before Pharaoh to request the freedom of the Israelites, but Pharaoh refuses to liberate them. As a consequence, “the” 10 plagues are set up upon Egypt.
Our Torah portion presents us with a difficult question in this and next weeks portion: The Torah mentions twenty times the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart as an reaction on Moses and Aarons request to free the Israelites. The first ten have to do with the first five plagues, and in each we are told that “Pharaoh hardened his heart,” while the next ten times – in reference to the next five plagues – the text tells us that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
Centuries ago Rabbi Yochanan was troubled by an idea that a close reading of our Torah portion could provoke that God is pulling all the strings, and that Pharaoh has no free choice. Then the Egyptian ruler could not be held responsible for his choices, and in consequence it would mean that none of us is really free, and our choices between acts of love and hatred, or justice and indifference are an illusion? Resh Lakish – another key figure from the Talmud – responded by explaining that God gave Pharaoh several opportunities to change his mind. The plagues were direct consequences for these decisions. While Pharaoh had the chance to open a new path in the beginning, and to free the enslaved Israelites, he refused to. At the end, he was captured in his own web. In other words, one bad choice led to the next and then to the next until his range of choices narrowed, and he could no longer turn back.
Free will “is a fundamental principle of Judaism” says Maimonides, “No one forces, preordains, or impels a person to act.” Trapped by fear of failure or unable to develop creative ways, we tend to opt for closed-minded solutions, not realising how they will harden our hearts, and deprive others and us from their and our freedom. It is not God who is pulling all the strings; the path of our life is determined by the decisions we make and the consequences we have to live with as a result out of these decisions. –Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Va’era Year 3 Exodus 8:16-9:35 (Plaut p.388; Hertz p.240)
Haftarah Ezekiel 28:25-29:21 (Plaut p.401; Hertz p.244)