Parashat Vaera

by Hazzan Marcia Lane
See, Hear.
In the office where I work we have an office dog, a tiny, ancient, tea-cup Yorkshire Terrier. Gracie has cataracts in both her eyes, but when she looks at you, you would swear she could see you. And, in a way, she does. When she hears her favorite people, she lights up like a thousand watts! And when she smells food she makes a bee-line for it! Clearly her other senses have compensated for the loss of vision. She navigates her worlds with the gps of memory, which is extremely sharp!
This week’s parashah introduces the first seven of the ten plagues which are to befall Egypt. From the very first sign of God’s power, the experience is visceral. The language seems to indicate experiences that overwhelm and confound all the senses. Walking sticks turn into snakes, which eat other snakes and turn back into walking sticks! If that isn’t the description of something the sight of which is beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp, then nothing is. Except that the world gets more and more bizarre; more of our senses get engaged and assaulted with each new plague. Our eyes behold the river turning to blood. Fish die and stink as they rot, frogs swarm the land and die and stink. Lice and insects swarm — imagine the sound of it! Even the sense of taste must be affected as the dust-like bugs invade food and water. The dreadful bellowing of cattle as they die of a mysterious disease. Skin breaks out in boils. Sensory overload!
There is, however, one recurring event for which our usual five senses cannot bear witness: the stiffening of Pharaoh’s heart. In Hebrew the many words used for this action translate to words that indicate weight or heaviness or hardness. But however we think about that action, it is internal. We cannot see or hear it. We don’t touch or taste or smell whatever is happening to Pharaoh’s heart. We see the effects of it, but that’s a little like knowing that the wind is blowing because we see the leaves moving. And yet the hardening, the stiffening, the heaviness of Pharaoh’s heart is the one action that most affects the outcome of the story. We can close our eyes or stop up our ears to suffering. We can become inured to bad smells and we can get used to bad tastes, but the internal dulling, the callousing of the human heart is more difficult to overcome. Perhaps that’s why Pharaoh, who could break the cycle of misery at any time, is incapable of softening. Many commentators have noted that, while free will is given to all humans, habitual behavior can limit one’s choices. Pharaoh cannot make a decision that would be compassionate, because he doesn’t know how. And each action that stiffens his resolve makes it harder to bend.
I’ve been paging through quotes about the senses, and many of them are lovely, and many of them ring true. But one I found rather odd:
The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind.
Apparently, Napolean Bonaparte was like Pharaoh in his attempt to use the strength of his mind to overrule the evidence of his senses. Maybe it’s the mark of one kind of politician. There is, however, another model, personified by Moshe, and this kind of leader is represented by a quote attributed to the 3rd century BCE Indian politician and philosopher, Chanakya (also known as Vishna Gupta):
Purity of speech, of the mind, of the senses, and of a compassionate heart are needed by one who desires to rise to the divine platform.
Moshe is the kind of leader who is in touch with his senses. He stops what he is doing and turns from the path to see something extraordinary. He listens to a voice that might be inaudible to another. But most essentially, his heart is moved by suffering and injustice.
When Pharaoh ignores the testimony of his senses, he desensitizes his heart. When Moshe, however, honors what his physical senses are telling him, they inform and sensitize his conscience and his heart. Only by being fully present to the outer world through our five senses can we be fully alive to the possibilities of our inner world, and our sense of compassion, of humility, of empathy.
Shabbat shalom.
Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.