What I Learned About Changing the World From Parashat Vaera

The first parsha of Shemot ends on a down note. Moses has done exactly what God asked of him, and yet everything seems to have turned out wrong. Rather than listening to Moses and letting Israel go free, the Pharaoh has only been irritated enough to inflict further hardships on them. Meanwhile, the people Moses was sent to save now look on him as the source of their problems rather than the solution. Moses’ feelings about his mission at this stage can best be summed up by the anguished cry he calls out to God – “Oh Lord, why did you bring harm on this people? Why did you send me?”

The despair felt by both Moses and the Israelites at this point is not difficult to understand, inexperienced as they all are with the task they have been called to undertake, which is nothing less than working to bring an end to their own oppression and subjugation. Caught up in the idealism of his mission and still not used to thinking of himself as a leader (or even an Israelite for that matter), there are still a few lessons Moses has to learn before he can lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. It is precisely in this parsha (Parashat Vaera) in which God begins to see to it that he learns them.

Lesson 1: Everything is a process. Everything.

Moses and the Israelites are discouraged at the beginning of the parsha because they all at some level expected the experience of liberation to be simple, easily attained and above all quick. When carrying out God’s first set of instructions did not immediately lead to an improvement of their situation but, to the contrary, seemed to worsen them, Moses and crew reacted with justified surprise. After all, with God on their side, how can they possibly fail? What they fail to understand is that even for God (maybe especially for God) everything is a process. It took seven days for God to create the world, and it’s going to take some time to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. We might ask, if God knew beforehand that in the end it would take the death of the firstborn to get Pharaoh to finally capitulate, why then not try that first and have done with it? It may be, however, that without all the other plagues, the threats and back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, this final plague would not have had the same impact and might not have succeeded at all. All the previous efforts Moses, Aaron go through, apparently futile on the surface, actually prepare the ground for the final victory.

Lesson 2: To make change happen, you first have to believe change is possible.

At this low point, when Moses is feeling so lost and dejected, God prefaces the next set of instructions by recounting all the signs and promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that the Israelites would be redeemed from exile and would come at last to inherit the land promised to their ancestors. Not only this, however: In this speech God emphasizes that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who merited to receive such promises, knew God only as El Shaddai, not by the four-letter name that most closely and intimately connects God with the people Israel. In this way, God seems to be saying: As close as I was to your ancestors, I never revealed My own special name to them, and yet I sheltered and cared for them in times of trouble. How then can I fail to take care of you, who have been permitted to be so much closer to Me?

Lesson 3: When things are looking bad, it’s important to remember who you are and where you came from.

Even after being reminded of God’s promises, Moses still doesn’t feel confident in the eventual success of his mission. The source of this lack of confidence seems to come primarily from a breakdown of trust between the people and its leader. The Torah clearly tells us that the Israelites’ reason for not listening to Moses at this point is because of their circumstances – the harshness of their labor and the constriction of their spirit – nevertheless Moses himself can’t help but attribute his failure to the inadequacy of his leadership skills, regretting once more his deficiency of speech.

It is no coincidence that the Torah chooses this moment to recount in part the genealogy that led up to the birth of Aaron and Moses. This is to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the close connection between the two brothers, and between Moses and the Israelites. In this way God seems to be saying: Though you were raised in different households and under very different circumstances, still you are brothers and nothing can break that bond. Just the same, though the Israelites may have lost their confidence in you for the moment, you are bound together by ties that cannot be broken. Now get up and get to work!

These are only a few of the lessons Moses needs to learn as we watch him develop! over the course of the next several parshiyot from an insecure outsider suffering from lack of confidence and a very really difficulty connecting with the people he’s supposed to save, into a strong and capable leader able to face down Pharaoh, discontented Israelites and even God in order to protect the people from harm and bring them through the wilderness. May we all learn from them as well as we work to find solutions to the difficulties facing our own communities and in our own days.

Dvar Torah: Parashat Vaera

Well it’s Parashat Vaera and the story is starting to heat up. Like the producers of a really good television drama, the authors of our previous parsha started by introducing us to our main characters and built us up to a tense cliffhanger of an ending, with Pharaoh casually disregarding the message Moses brings him from God and only increasing the harshness of the burdens upon the Israelites. As this parsha opens, even the Israelite leaders seem to have given up their initial hopefulness that salvation is attainable and we are left wondering what assistance God will provide to ensure Moses’s success.

Now that the story of Moses is starting to really get underway, I thought it might be interesting to draw back from the action for a moment and take some time to look at what happens to him after the Bible is through with him. Those of you who know your Chumash will be able to tell me pretty flatly that, in a narrative sense, the answer to this question is nothing, because by the time we get to the end of Deuteronomy, Moses has died, having shepherded the people through forty years of wilderness wandering and brought them almost, but not quite, to the land promised to them by God.

But even though in a certain sense the story of Moses is over by the time we get to the first chapter of the book of Joshua, in another sense it has only just begun. That’s because in the Jewish tradition the way in which later generations re-imagine the stories and characters depicted in the Bible is often just as important as the “official version”–sometimes even more so.

As an example of this, I thought it might be interesting to look at a discussion that takes place in masechet Berachot of the Talmud. The conversation begins by quoting a saying  of Rabbi Haninah: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven, as it is said: “And now, Israel, what does Ha Shem ask from you but to fear (Ha Shem your god)?” The biblical passage rabbi Haninah quotes to back up his saying is from Deuteronomy chapter 10, in which Moses is reminding the Israelites of their responsibility to fear God, to love God and to walk in God’s ways. By quoting this passage Rabbi Hanina seems to be saying that because God asks for fear “from you,” we can infer that fear of Heaven–by which is meant a sense of awe and respect for God–is special in that God cannot simply cause it to happen but must receive it from us.

But the Talmud has a problem with what Rabbi Haninah is saying. “Do you mean to say,” it asks, “that fear of Heaven is a small thing?” The Torah passage Rabbi Hanina quotes asks us “what does God ask of you, except to fear God?” The question seems to imply that fear of God is an easy thing to ask of us, and even to carry with it a note of exasperation that it had to ask us in the first place. We can imagine the tone of this passage to be almost like that of a mother surveying her children’s messy rooms and saying, “All I ask you to do is clean up after yourselves. Is that so hard?”

But fear of Heaven is hard. To carry ourselves at all times and in all circumstances with an awareness of the divine and the responsibilities it has placed on us is incredibly difficult. What then are we to make of this passage? Rabbi Hanina responds with a clever point: Fear of Heaven is an easy thing, he says–for Moses. And in fact, it is Moses who is speaking the words of this passage, speaking of the fear of Heaven as the easy thing it is for him, and not as the hard thing it is for us. As Rabbi Hanina says, it is as if you asked a person for something big and he happened to have it–to him, it would seem like a small thing. But if you asked someone for something quite small, and he didn’t have it, it would seem to him as if you’d asked for something big.

But is fear of Heaven really such a small thing for Moses? From what we see of him in this week’s parsha, it would be quite hard to make such a claim. Far from carrying himself with a constant awareness of God’s power, Moses seems much more concerned with the power of Pharaoh. “I am the LORD,” says God, “Speak to the king of Egypt all that I will tell you.” And Moses responds with nervousness and lack of confidence: “See, I am of impeded speech! How then should Pharaoh heed me?” It isn’t until God agrees to send Aaron with him to act as his spokesman that Moses agrees to go.

Is Rabbi Hanina wrong about Moses? We might say so, but I can’t help but feel that this would be overly simplistic. The truth of the matter is that we are all complicated human beings, and none of us is ever completely consistent, either in our virtues or our flaws. By choosing to focus on one aspect of Moses’s character and ignore others, Rabbi Hanina is making a point to help us better understand ourselves and our place in the world. In a way, part of what fear of Heaven implies is the awareness that our own perspective is limited, and there is always some new way to see a subject or a person. This awareness is one of the strengths of our tradition, because it helps us grow and adapt to a changing world. And so, as we continue to read again the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery, may we blessed with the ability to look upon it with new eyes and find new ways of making it speak in our lives.

Hardened Hearts- Parashat Vaera

We had a discussion in class a while ago about the section in Exodus (parashat Vaera) where G-d tells Moses that he “will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This is a difficult passage that has been challenging rabbis for centuries, and the Rambam’s explanation in the Mishneh Torah–that habitual evil left unchecked for too long can eventually rule out even the possibility of repentance–seems no so much to resolve the issue as to focus and intensify it. To put it bluntly, is it possible that in this instance G-d was willing and able to suspend the free will of a human being, even a habitually wicked one, to make a point? And if it were possible in this instance, then why not others, also? Does this passage not call into question the very meaning of free will in the shadow of a transcendent G-d?

We would all like to believe that we are ultimately free to choose between good and evil. To do otherwise would be to take an ironic stance toward our own moral commitments. And yet, those of us who strive to resist the deceptive attractions of moral irony must find some answer to its claims, particularly because they seem so often to come from the mouth of experience and worldly knowledge. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote in the introduction to Totality and Infinity, “Everyone will agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are duped by morality.”

I’m not sure whether I can answer the challenge posed by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but some thoughts did occur to me today which seemed to help put the question in perspective. As far as I can see, the theological possibility of free will does not necessarily exclude the psychological observation that peoples’ behavior tends to be influenced by their environment. If what we mean by free will is some sacrosanct, inviolable thing, utterly insulated from its surroundings, then it’s hard to even imagine such a thing existing, or having any effect on the world if it did. Doesn’t a great deal of our behavior toward others express a certain fundamental assumption that what we say or do may have an effect on how they think, or feel, or at least behave? How else is an argument, or a threat, or a word of comfort supposed to work?

In order to make a difference in the world around you, you have to be open to being changed in return. This is true with regard to our fellow human beings, and it is true of our relationship with God. If we believe that God has an active role in creation (and this is a belief I find strongly persuasive), then we have to at least entertain the possibility that the way we think and feel has been strongly influenced by the ongoing conversation with the Eternal that has been at play in the events of our lives.

Where then does this leave Pharaoh? Raised in a society that treats him like a god, surrounded by sycophantic admirers and steeped in a culture that sees itself as the pinnacle of human civilization, it is not hard to imagine the kind of egocentric character that might be formed by such a biography. And into the middle of this carefully circumscribed world strides Moses, the scruffy, bearded, sun-baked representative of an enslaved people and its unknown god. There was little in the Egyptian king’s life that could have prepared him for this radical challenge to his smug self-regard.

In a biblical world, in which God is always seen to be lurking behind the wings, breathing the breath of a transcendent outside into the otherwise airtight box of history, is it so difficult to detect in these circumstances of Pharaoh’s life the means by which God “hardened his heart?” When weighed against the calcified accumulation of historical necessity, what can be the significance of “free will,” of the inward exception that exempts itself from the prerogatives of the past? It is precisely this conflict, and its surprising conclusion, that lie at the heart of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. For Moses himself, though not to as great a degree as Pharaoh, had tasted what the most sophisticated civilization in the world had to offer, but gave it all up in reaction to the injustice he saw taking place in front of him. If the meaning of free will is to be found anywhere in this story, I think it is in the fact that this decisive moment in Moses’s life, this moment of uncontrollable rage at the mistreatment of one human being by another, happened long before he is likely to have even heard of the God of Israel. Perhaps this is what Rashi is trying to tell us– that the meaning of free will in a God-haunted universe is that the decisive encounter with God will only happen-whether we are Pharaoh or Moses–once our choices have already been made.