By Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezek. 36:26)
In Parashat Va’eira the Torah presents Pharaoh’s response to the successive plagues meted out by God. Seven times we read the refrain that Pharaoh’s heart was either “strengthened” or “hardened” after each plague. At times the phrase “v’lo shama aleihem – and he did not listen to them” is added to the ‘stiffening of the heart’ phrase. Pharaoh is described repeatedly as one with an iron will, or as the Torah implies, an iron heart. He excels at shutting himself off from the suffering of others and the word of God. He appears to cultivate this skill to exquisite proportions despite the plagues, the suffering of his own people and the destruction of his land.
Eventually, in Gen. 9:12 after the sixth plague (boils), the text states that God strengthens Pharaoh’s heart. From this point onward and throughout the narrative of the plagues, the text alternates between expressions of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. All tolled, we will read of twenty instances in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened- ten times by the will of Pharaoh and ten times by the will of God.
This presents a difficulty to most contemporary readers as well as to our sages, for it appears that God is interfering with Pharaoh’s free will and preventing him from the opportunity to change his ways and effect some sort of teshuvah/repentance. Nahmanides (a 13th century rabbi, philosopher, mystic and Bible commentator) basing his comments on a quote from Exodus Rabbah (a tenth cent. compilation of earlier rabbinic bible commentary), explains that God “warns him a first, second and third time, and still he does not repent, whereupon he locks the door to the possibility of repentance in order to collect His due from him for what he has sinned. So it was with the wicked Pharaoh.” (Ramban on Ex. 7:3) Nahmanides understands God’s actions as a form of retribution but also alludes to a self-generating process.
We can understand this in contemporary terms when we recall moments of feeling as if we have no choice in a particular circumstance. There are times when we lock ourselves into certain situations and patterns of relationships feeling that we really have no other choice. Is this ever really true? In a sense, we abdicate our ability to make a choice because we fear it may cause suffering or a level of discomfort we do not wish to experience. And sometimes our inaction is simply the nature of habitual response that blinds us to new possibilities and prevents us from truly exercising our own free-will.
In our parashah, the relationship of Pharaoh and God becomes a powerfully instructive model. After having relentlessly hardened his own heart, it appears that Pharaoh has become trapped within a self-generating process, one that is, at times, willfully created and at times completely out of his own control. He appears to have lost control over his own will/heart and becomes trapped in a karmic prison of his own design. Pharaoh has built such a superstructure of stubbornness, ego and arrogance that he becomes too dense, kaved-hard and strong to soften and untangle himself from his own prison, even if some part of him wants to.
This type of Pharaoh lives within all human beings. Though he may view himself as a God, he is painfully recognizable to us as characteristically human. He represents the capacity in each of us to shut down our compassion for others when the ego is threatened; to stubbornly hold on to our own position, even when we know on some level that we are incorrect; to shut ourselves off from the pain of others, and to act from a place of arrogance and pride. All of these ego-qualities can create a kind of prison within which activating free will becomes impossible.
The greatest danger lies in the potential for paralysis. After a certain point, we may abdicate our free-will to a sense of inertia leaving us unable to make a new choice even if we want to. Like Pharaoh, our hearts can become frozen.
Our tradition teaches that even in this most narrow place of constriction, there is still a way to create an opening. The psalmist states, “min hameitzar karati Yah, annani bamerhav Yah- from the narrow place of constriction I called to God, and I was answered with God’s wide open space.” (Ps.118: 5) At times when we feel the need to make a shift but cannot find our own inner flexibility, we can turn to God for help. For simply in asking for God’s help, we begin to soften and open to new possibilities. This week’s parashah reminds us that God is the One who listens and remembers. Our story of redemption is initiated by God who tells Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites… and I have remembered my covenant.” (Ex. 6:5) God listens and God remembers that, which at times, we ourselves have forgotten. Our connection to the Divine is our greatest resource and our true inheritance. For though our text states that God can harden Pharaoh’s heart, so too can God soften the heart, if we but call out for that help when we recognize the need.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman is the Founder and Director of Rimon: Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality in Great Barrington, MA www.rimonberkshires.org. She is also a Co-Founder and Co-Leader of The Berkshire Minyan- a trad/egal minyan that meets every Shabbat morning in Great Barrington.