VAERA, Exodus 6:2-9:35
In the Torah portion Vaera, Moses confronts Pharaoh, and is faced with numerous defeats before Israel's religious and political redemption. Seven plagues are recorded in this portion, and, repeatedly, Pharaoh refuses to liberate the people of Israel after each one. We learn of blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, inflammations and hail.
At first, the plagues are a direct assault upon the magic of the Egyptian courtiers. God defeats them with ever-increasing power and devastation. As the plagues continue, however, there is a noticeable increase in their "temperature and nature."
The longer Pharaoh lets the conflict go on, the more severe the consequences. The plagues start with general discomfort — lack of water, frogs, some flies — but then things get more painful — boils, storms, locust, darkness and, finally, death.
The stakes get higher for Pharaoh's heart as well. God not only plagues the land and people of Egypt, but assaults Pharaoh's heart as well, making it more obstinate and less caring as the conflict escalates. The text clearly tells us that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart."
First, a question: Why would a God concerned with freedom and justice punish a man with plagues for sins that he commits at the will of God, thus making him seemingly not responsible? Why would God harden his heart and then send plagues because of Pharoah's stubbornness? It seems a tad unfair.
Rabbi Yochanan in "Midrash Rabbah" wondered, if Pharaoh had no free will and it was all in God's hands, then is it reasonable to expect Pharaoh to repent?
Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish observed that God hardened Pharaoh's heart only after the Egyptian leader rejected God's call for justice and liberation.
God had offered Pharaoh several plagues — or "opportunities" — to repent. Seeing that he wouldn't submit and show at least a modicum of caring, God punished the monarch with a "hard heart."
The phrase, "and God hardened Pharaoh's heart," noticeably appears after the conflict had been waging for quite some time. Shimon b. Lakish observed that, at first, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but, near the end of the portion, it's God who is controlling Pharaoh's destiny.
Unwilling to show any compassion, Pharaoh controlled his character, but soon after, his lack of empathy affected his soul, and it was as if he no longer had any authority over himself. It was as if that hardness of heart came from God — a power stronger than Pharoah's own will.
Jewish scholars teach that we have free will. We, who have insight and knowledge, can determine the nature of our personality and our souls. We are the architects and builders or our character. Yet Spinoza, raising the ire of the 17th-century rabbinate, argued the opposite.
For him, free will is simply an illusion. We are influenced, he argued, by unseen forces that cannot be understood. Habitual behavior, for example, can have a power over our lives so strong that it's as if it comes from a place outside of our will. Maybe Spinoza and Shimon b. Lakish weren't so far apart on this.
How we behave does matter greatly. Pirke Avot ("The Ethics of Our Fathers") agrees, teaching that "the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah. The punishment for a sin is a sin." Habits shape our personality. When we close ourselves off from others, as did Pharaoh, then we are punished with isolation.
The converse is also true.
Goodness is its own reward. Life teaches us that we're not rewarded for our good deeds, but rather by our good deeds. Living a life of kindness may not bring us fame or fortune, but our actions may penetrate our being, and thus open our eyes to the good in ourselves and in others.
Callousness is its own punishment, as kindness is its own reward.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the religious leader of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.