In the cycle of stories presented in this week’s parshah, Moses and Aaron engage in a series of confrontations with a Pharaoh to secure the freedom of the Israelites from bondage. In their corner is God, who uses the opportunity to demonstrate God’s great power and spread God’s fame in the world.
Over eight separate occasions, Moses and Aaron speak with God’s guidance as plague and punishment is delivered again and again upon Egypt and Pharaoh. As these plagues grow in scope and severity, Pharaoh appears to give in multiple times only to — in the end — have his heart hardened and reverse every concession he offered in exchange for Moses interceding on behalf of Egypt to end its suffering.
The Rabbis understand Pharaoh’s unwillingness to yield in many ways. Most difficult is the notion that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God, rather than by Pharaoh’s own agency.
In Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus 7:13, a collection of homiletic midrashim from the 5th-7th centuries, this issue is resolved by noting that there is a shift from the passive “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” during the first five plagues to the active “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” after. This teaches us that, once Pharaoh had committed so completely to denying the Israelites their freedom, God ensured Pharaoh would continue to resist and incur the full range of punishments.
In our time and place, I cannot help but wonder if the notion of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened might also shed light on the difficulties we as a society are having overcoming the plague of empty rhetoric and isolated data sources that have claimed our hearts and minds.
This plague, I think, is based in otherwise holy aspects of ourselves: the ability to believe, despite the evidence of our eyes, in things bigger than ourselves.
This gift allows us to persevere through difficult circumstances — circumstances every one of us has been dealing with this last year under a pandemic — and has made it possible to maintain the most important things in our lives. Friends, family, hope for a future where we can see each other again without fear of endangering the lives of those we love, are all things that we can cling to regardless of the moment or circumstances we find ourselves in.
But it also leaves us vulnerable to the idiosyncratic patterns of our minds that let us form entire ecosystems of “truth” from mere scraps of evidence that may, upon deeper reflection, point to nothing.
Faith from weak principles, belief from bad data points, only compound these errors as we invest and reinvest in toxic ways of relating to others and begin to deny the evidence of our eyes, and the voice of God in our hearts.
Moses models the way through — from his first moments facing God in the bush that would not burn, questioning his assumptions and his ability to fulfill the vision that his eyes and ears are telling him to pursue. Again and again, God meets Moses where he is at and assures him in each instance that he is worthy and capable of delivering his people from bondage from the hands of a tyrant.
With the graceful simplicity in our Torah, the text offers up Pharaoh and his hardened heart as a perfect counterpoint to Moses our teacher. Where Moses doubts his senses and seeks further evidence, Pharaoh affirms his assumptions with each plague and only yields for as long as conditions do not meet his expectations.
Even with God providing data point after data point that Moses and Aaron are who they say they are, that God will be who God will be, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge that what he knew of how the world works is no longer valid.
The hardened heart is not just a lack of empathy, but a lack of recognition that what we want to believe about the world, and what we must recognize in the world, do not always align. The plagues, and the catastrophe that befalls Egypt, are the consequence of holding unyielding, uncritical faith for persons and institutions that refuse to allow for shifts in perspective and understanding.
As we continue on in this tumultuous time in our country, and in the world as a whole, may we all find the strength to open our hearts to the evidence laid before us by God and turn away from false idols that strive to turn our eyes away from the greater truths that bring us together as a people. JN
Rabbi Herschel “Brodie” Aberson is the spiritual leader for Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley.