Va-eira & Bo: Hard-Hearted Habit

April 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Posted in Bo, Va-eira | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on December 26, 2010.)

Moses’ first attempt to free the Israelite slaves in Egypt fails, and he returns to God to protest.  He objects that he has “uncircumcised” (i.e. closed and insensitive) lips, so how can he speak effectively?  (See my last blog, Shemot: Openings.)  God tells him to try again, and also warns him, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”—in order to have the opportunity to make impressive miracles that will convince the Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the God of Israel is thegod.

What an agenda!  And God’s extraordinary scheme requires Pharaoh to repeatedly refuse to let the Israelites go free.  Even if Moses’ lips become metaphorically circum-cised, Pharaoh’s heart must remain uncircumcised—closed and insensitive, and by extension unyielding, until the tenth and final plague.

The two Torah portions about the plagues in Egypt are Va-eira, “I appeared” (the last week of December this year) and Bo, “Come” (the first week of January).

In Va-eira, during the staff-to-snake transformation and the first seven plagues (blood through hail), Pharaoh stiffens his resolve and refuses nine times to let the Israelites leave to serve their god.  Whenever Pharaoh renews his resolve, the Torah says he makes his “heart” either “hard” or “weighed down”.

... and the heart of Pharaoh was hard, and he did not pay attention to them … (Exodus/Shemot 7:13, 7:22, 8:15)

… and Pharaoh weighed down his heart even this time, and he did not send the people.  (8:28)

leiv = (physically) heart; (metaphorically) inner self, mind, seat of feelings and impulses, intention, resolve

vayechezak = it was hard, strong, firm, resistant

vayachbeid = he weighed down, made heavy, immobilized

The next Torah portion, Bo, describes the last four plagues.  During these plagues, God weighs down Pharaoh’s heart once, and hardens it three times.  For example:

And God said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh, because I, myself, weighed down his heart and the heart of his servants, for the sake of putting my signs near him.  (10:1)

And God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, so he was not willing to send them out.  (10:27)

God has to intervene to prevent Pharaoh’s “heart” from opening after the eighth plague, locusts, because Pharaoh is weakening.  During plagues 2, 4, and 7 (frogs, swarm of wild beasts, and hail), Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go and worship their god if the plague is removed—and then after each plague ends, his heart changes back and he refuses.

But when Moses announces that in the next plague, swarms of locusts will eat up every bit of remaining vegetation, Pharaoh makes his first effort to prevent a plague before it starts.  He says that if Moses intercedes to prevent this plague, the Israelite men can leave—but not the children.  Moses refuses.  During the locust plague, Pharaoh begs forgiveness for his transgression against God.   He seems to be learning the lesson at last: the god of the Israelites rules the world, and must be respected rather than opposed.

But Pharaoh’s change of heart comes too soon; God’s plan requires the full ten-plague demonstration.  So after the locusts are done, God takes over hardening and weighing down Pharaoh’s heart.  The ninth plague is darkness, and this time Pharaoh tells Moses that all the Israelites can go, even the children, but not their livestock.  Moses refuses again, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart again, and God proceeds with the tenth and final plague, the Death of the Firstborn.  Only after that night of death does God let Pharaoh come to Moses and insist that all the Israelites leave without conditions.  And in the morning, the exodus from Egypt begins.

For the last two millennia, commentators have worried about God’s apparent heartlessness in the story of the ten plagues.  As long as Pharaoh is hardening and weighing down his own heart, one can argue that he deserves punish-ment.  One can also argue that, assuming the people of Egypt know what is going on, they deserve to be punished as long as they remain passive subjects of Pharaoh.  But by the time Moses announces plague 7, hail, some of the Egyptians have opened their “hearts”, that is, their minds.  Those who are now in awe of God take advantage of the warning, and gather their servants and livestock into their houses, where they are safe from the hail.

(Alas, the Torah does not mention any protection for these new believers from plagues 8, 9, and 10.  Even the “maidservant behind the millstone” loses her firstborn child if she is not an Israelite.  In the 11th century Rashi tried to explain this by claiming that non-Israelite servants were guilty of taking pleasure in mistreating Hebrew servants, and therefore deserved their punishment.  Today it’s hard for most people to believe that sort of whitewash.)

Whether the Egyptians deserve the plagues or not, surely when Pharaoh is ready to repent he does not deserve to have God harden his heart again.

Daniel Haberman’s English translation, based on Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s German translation of the Hebrew, exonerates God by implying that really Pharaoh is still hardening his own heart; it merely becomes explicit that God is not interfering with Pharaoh’s process.  Twice God predicts “I will harden his heart” in Haberman’s translation, but in the midst of the plagues, God says “I have let his heart and the heart of his servants be unmoved”, and after the ninth plague, “God letPharaoh’s heart by stubborn”.  This sounds nicer, but it dances around the plain meaning of the text.

15th-century rabbi Joseph Albo and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that Pharaoh didn’t really want to repent; he merely couldn’t bear the pain and suffering any more.  God changed his heart not by making him more stubborn, but by giving him the courage to bear the suffering.  That way, the rabbis figured, if Pharaoh let the Israelites go after all, it would mean he truly accepted God.

I don’t buy this.  The Torah describes God as hardening and weighing down Pharaoh’s heart—using the same two words for what Pharaoh did to himself.  It does not use an alternate word to indicate instilling courage.

Rambam (Maimonides, 12th century) wrote that even though humans  have free will, God punishes the worst repeat offenders by depriving them of the chance to repent.  Thus Pharaoh was so terrible, he forfeited his right to change his mind.  In the 20th-century, commentator Nehamah Leibowitz explained that the longer someone persists in doing evil, the harder it becomes to repent and switch to doing good.  On the other hand, the longer someone persists in doing good, the harder it becomes to do evil.  God simply made humans that way.

I see the power of habit in the stories of both Moses and Pharaoh.  Moses, an outsider in Pharaoh’s court and an outsider again in Midian, develops a habit of silence and humility.  When he sees the Egyptian overseer abusing Hebrew slaves, he does not speak to Pharaoh; he acts, and then keeps it to himself.  In Midian he chooses a quiet life as a shepherd, never revealing his education or skills.  When God calls on him to confront Pharaoh, Moses clings to his old habit; he cannot imagine becoming a leader and speaking up, and he gives God one excuse after another to get out of it.  Yet finally he goes to Egypt and makes himself act against his old habit.

Moses’ uncle-by-adoption, the Pharaoh, has a habit of acting with absolute power and pride.  He is accustomed to being obeyed, and to insisting upon his own position as a god-like dictator who cannot be contradicted.  Because of this ingrained habit, Pharaoh cannot bring himself to pay attention to the qualms of his advisors, or to the needs of his people, or to simple considerations of cause and effect.  When he is confronted with evidence that God has more power than Pharaoh, Pharaoh clings to his old habits.  He cannot imagine that in the end God and Moses will win.

After the shock of the death of his firstborn son, Pharaoh is temporarily humbled.  He seeks out Moses, and insists that all the Israelites leave at once, with their children and livestock and anything else they possess.  Yet unlike Moses, Pharaoh has not truly broken his habit, and in the Torah portion after Bo, he sends an army to pursue his ex-slaves.

Some of us are like Pharaoh, and cannot break our bad habits for more than a day, even after life has hammered at us from every side.  Yet many of us are like Moses, and although we cling to our bad habits until we’ve exhausted every avenue of resistance, we then find the courage to act, to do what really needs to be done, even though we’ve never done it before.  What a blessing to know that Moses’ response is also possible!  Thank God we human beings are created with the ability to take a seemingly impossible leap out of a bad habit, and gradually build up a good habit instead.

May every heart that is hard and weighed down by a bad habit open at last, and receive the blessing of change.


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  1. […] on the next Torah portion, Bo. Click on these links if you want to read my previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my […]

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