1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4

August 3, 2017 at 12:37 am | Posted in Bo, Samuel 1 | 1 Comment
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One mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! (1 Samuel 6:4)

mageifah (מַגֵפָה) = plague, epidemic, pestilence. (Plural = mageifot.)

Angry gods cause epidemics. This was the obvious to writers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan several thousand years ago, long before the germ theory of disease. The best way to stop a plague or epidemic was to determine which god was responsible, and then appease that god.

My last three posts on “How to Stop a Plague”1 concern an epidemic caused by the jealous rage of the God of Israel when “His” people are unfaithful to “Him” and worship a god named Baal Peor. The plague kills 24,000 Israelites before Pinchas halts it with an act that shocks the God-character out of “His” uncontrolled anger.2 This plague begins in the Torah portion Balak, but the repercussions continue through this week’s portion, Va-etchannan.

The God-character also kills thousands of Israelites with plagues after they worship the Golden Calf3, after they complain about the food God provided4, after they complain that God killed the 250 rebels led by Korach5, and after God becomes angry with the Israelites for some unreported reason and tells King David to order a census.6  In all of these cases, the plague is a direct result of God’s rage.

However, when the God of Israel afflicts other peoples with epidemics, “He” is offended, but calm. The God-character uses plagues to make the foreigners acknowledge the superior power of God and do the Israelites a favor. Once those objectives have been met, God simply stops the plague.

Pharoah Merneptah

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God creates ten miraculous disasters in Egypt, two of which are infectious plagues.7 Yet the Pharaoh keeps refusing to do what the God of Israel wants. After the second epidemic, God orders Moses to tell the Pharaoh:

…Thus says God, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go so they may serve Me. Because this time I am sending all My mageifot to you and to your courtiers and to your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. (Exodus/Shemot 9:13-14)

Only after the tenth miracle, the overnight death of the firstborn, does the Pharaoh admit God’s superior power and free the Israelite slaves.

*

The Philistines are more rational when the God of Israel afflicts them with a plague.

The problem begins when the Philistines take God’s most sacred object, the ark of the covenant. Israelite soldiers in the first book of Samuel unwisely bring the ark with them from the sanctuary at Shiloh onto the battleground at Even Ha-eizer, hoping that the magic of its presence will give them victory. It does not; God wants “His” ark in a sanctuary, not on a battlefield.

Dagon

And the Philistines took the ark of God, and they brought it from Even Ha-eizer to Ashdod. And the Philistines took the ark of God and they brought it into the House of Dagon, and they placed it beside Dagon. (1 Samuel 5:1-2)

The next morning, the priests of Ashdod discover that the statue of their own chief god, Dagon, has fallen face-down in front of the ark. The second morning, the statue of Dagon has fallen again, and its head and hands are cut off. Naturally, the shocked Philistines move the ark out of the sanctuary and into a field.

Then the hand of God was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He devastated them, and He struck down Ashdod and her territory with ofalim. (1 Samuel 5:6)

ofalim (עֳפָלִים) = probably buboes—lymph nodes swollen to the size of chicken eggs due to the bubonic plague—in the groin area. (According to the Masoretic text, when this chapter is read out loud, the word ofalim is replaced with techorim (טְחֺררִים) = hemorrhoids or anal abscesses. Techorim was considered a more polite word to say in public.)

The people of Ashdod send the ark off to another Philistine city, Geit.

The ark journeys from Shiloh to Beit Shemesh in six stages

…and the hand of God was on the city, a very great panic, and the people of the town from young to old had ofalim in their secret parts. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron… (1 Samuel 5:9-10)

The people of Ekron protest even before they start dying of the bubonic plague, and the princes of all five Philistine city-states meet there to decide what to do. Philistine priests and diviners urge them to send the ark back to Israelite territory, along with a guilt-offering, in the hope that then the God of Israel will stop the plague and heal the survivors.

And they [the princes and the Ekronites] said: “What is the guilt-offering that we should send back to Him?” And they [the priests] said: “The number of princes of Philistine is five. Five golden ofalim and five golden rats—for one mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! So you must make images of your ofalim and images of your rats that are destroying the land, and you must give honor to the God of Israel. Perhaps them He will lighten His hand from upon you and from upon your gods and from upon your land.” (1 Samuel 6:4-5.)

The Philistines probably noticed a plethora of dying rats in same areas where humans were afflicted. Today we know that bubonic plague is carried by fleas that bite both rats and humans.

Perhaps the Philistine rulers hesitated to send the golden ark and ten gold statuettes to their enemies the Israelites, because the Philistine priests add:

Why should you harden your heart as Egypt and Pharaoh hardened their heart? Did He not make a fool of them, so they let [the Israelites] go, and off they went? (1 Samuel 6:6)

The five Philistine princes, unlike the Pharaoh, are willing to do whatever will end the plague. Their priests then give instructions that will prove whether the God of Israel is responsible for it. The Philistines must load a cart with the ark and also a box containing the ten gold images. Then they must take two milk cows that have never pulled a plow and separate them from their nursing calves. They must shut up the calves inside, and harness the cows to the cart.

Then you will see: If it [the ark] goes up on the road to its own territory, toward Beit Shemesh, He made this great evil for us. But if not, then we will know that His hand has not touched us; by happenstance it happened to us. (1 Samuel 6:9)

Normally, the two cows would refuse to pull the cart, since they have never been harnessed before. Furthermore, they would try to get back to their calves as soon as their udders were full. Only a divine miracle would make the cows pull the cart to the nearest town in Israelite territory.

And the cows went straight on the road, on the road to Beit Shemesh. On a single highway they kept walking, lowing as they walked, and they veered neither right nor left. And the Philistine princes were walking behind them as far as the border of Beit Shemesh. (1 Samuel 6:12)

The action then switches to the arrival of the cart in Beit Shemesh, but we can assume that God responds by halting the bubonic plague in Philistine. The Bible does not mention it again.

*

Today the prompt administration of antibiotics can cure people of even the bubonic plague. But humans still experience a psychological kind of plague when panic spreads because our neighbors seem like enemies. In the United States today, people have become deeply divided by their anger and fear over the perceived political and moral differences between the left and the right. On each side, we are afraid that our own compatriots will force us to change our way of life, or even let us die.

And on each side, we want to take away things that are sacred to the other side. Unlike the Philistines appropriating the ark, we may not even realize what our “enemies” on the left or right consider sacred.

The people of Ekron get upset when the people of Geit send the ark to their city, yet they neither pick a fight nor pass the ark on to the next city. They call a meeting, get expert advice, and save all the surviving Philistine people by sending off the cart, even though it means giving up some wealth and honor. The five Philistine city-states not only cooperate with each other, but also honor the sacred object of the Israelites, and make a peace offering to the God of their enemies.

May we all become realistic and flexible like the Philistines, rather than hard-hearted like the Pharaoh. May we determine the causes of our own country’s plague, and may we all find the strength to do what we must in order to bring health and peace to all people.

__

1.  Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1; Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2; and Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.

2.  Numbers 25:6-8.

3.  Exodus 32:35.

4.  Numbers 11:31-35.

5.  Numbers 17:6-15.

6.  This story is included in the second book of Samuel, although its language and themes do not fit the rest of the book. After King David has followed God’s instructions to order a census of all Israelite men of fighting age, God makes him choose between three punishments for doing so. David chooses a plague, which kills 70,000 Israelites before David stops it with an animal offering (2 Samuel chapter 24).

7.  Ten according to Exodus; see my post Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles. The two plagues are livestock pestilence (dever) and an inflammation with boils (shechin).

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Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 2 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

*

Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies

January 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Bo, Ezekiel, Jeremiah | 7 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 46:13-28.
The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. 1872

The Death of the First Born, by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1872

In the book of Exodus, God inflicts ten miraculous plagues on Egypt to punish the pharaoh for refusing to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free in this week’s Torah portion, Bo—but only after the final miracle: the death of the firstborn sons.

In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah predicts that God will once again punish the pharaoh of Egypt for mistreating the Israelites.  This time God will not create miracles, but instead will use another empire’s army to achieve the goal.

The politics

There were three kinds of nations in the Near East during the era of 800-500 B.C.E.: superpowers that ran empires (Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, and Neo-Babylonian); countries that were directly controlled by a superpower; and semi-independent vassal states that paid tribute to a superpower in exchange for protection against outside attacks. Being a vassal state was the best hope for a small country like Judah, the only remaining Israelite kingdom after the northern kingdom of Israel was swallowed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 732 B.C.E.

Judah sent tribute to Assyria for about a century, except for a brief and doomed rebellion in 705-701 B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded southwest to include northern Egypt, and southeast to the Persian Gulf.

Pharaoh Psamtik I

Pharaoh Psamtik I unites Egypt

But no empire lasts forever. Psamtik, the son of one of Assyria’s puppet governors in northern Egypt, hired Greek mercenaries to drive out the Assyrian occupiers. By 654 B.C.E. he was pharaoh over a united Egypt. He went on to conquer the western half of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by 630 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah had become a vassal of Pharaoh Psamtik.

Next Assyria was assailed from the southeast. In 626 B.C.E. Babylon revolted under its new king, Narbopolassar. A shrunken Assyria allied itself with Egypt, and Psamtik’s son, Pharaoh Nekho II, sent his armies north to fight Narbopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was a slow march, interrupted by rebellions of vassal states along the way. King Josiah took his own army to Megiddo to challenge the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E., but the Egyptians trounced the Israelites, and Pharaoh Nekho killed Josiah.

The armies of Egypt and Babylon met in 605 B.C.E. at Carchemish, about 2,000 miles north of Jerusalem (on the present border between Turkey and Syria). The Egyptian army was crushed, and its surviving soldiers fled south.

According to Jeremiah, Egypt did not lose the battle because of any deficiency of its own; Egypt lost because the God of Israel made it happen.

Why have your strong ones been cut down?

They did not stand

Because God shoved them down. (Jeremiah 46:15)

map Neo-Babylonian Empire BAfter the battle at Carchemish, all of Egypt’s vassal states became vassals of Babylonia, and Assyria disappeared. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the new king of Judah, Yehoyakhim, to stay out of trouble and keep sending tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar.

But Yehoyakhim revolted against Babylonia in 599 B.C.E. and sent Judah’s tribute to Pharaoh Nekho II (the same pharaoh who had killed his father, Josiah).

Nebuchadnezzar retaliated by besieging Jerusalem. After a year and a half the city fell and Judah came under direct control of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticized Egypt for failing to send troops to defend its new vassal Judah.

Judah’s king, the prophet Ezekiel, and other leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind in the ruins of Jerusalem until some of his fellow countrymen took him into exile in Egypt.

The prophecy

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that because Egypt had failed keep its promise to help Judah, God would send an army from the north to destroy Egypt.  Both prophets said it would be King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar failed in his 568 B.C.E. attempt to conquer Egypt. The country remained independent until the Persians took it—from the north—in 526 B.C.E.

Babylonian soldiers

Babylonian soldiers

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God would arrange for Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Egypt not just to punish it, but so that the pharaoh would know who God is. (See last week’s post, Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy also includes more than punishment. He uses a name for God that never appears in Ezekiel:

As I live, declares the King—YHVH [of] Tzevaot is His name—

As Tabor is among the mountains

And Carmel is by the sea,

It will come!

Prepare for yourself the gear of exile…

For Nof will become a horror,

A desolation without inhabitants.

A heifer with a beautiful mouth is Egypt;

A stinging fly from the north is coming, coming! (Jeremiah 46:18-20)

YHVH = the four-letter personal name of God, probably related to the Hebrew verb “to be”.

Tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies; companies of soldiers. (The Bible also uses the word metaphorically for armies of angels and armies of stars.)

The god of Israel is never called YHVH [of] Tzevaot in the Bible until the first book of Samuel, which modern scholars date to 630–540 BCE—the same period as the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses this term 70 times!

Why does Jeremiah emphasize that YHWH, the god of existence itself, is the god of armies?

Jeremiah lived through at least 60 years of wars and reversals of fortune in the Near East, 60 years in which Judah was always a pawn, unable to take charge of its own destiny.

The common belief in the ancient Near East was that each country had its own god. When that god was happy with the people of his country, he made their army succeed. When the god was unhappy with them, their army failed.

The Bible also attributes many failures of Israelite armies to Israelite rejections of God. But why were God’s people suffering so many defeats, if their god was the most powerful?

Jeremiah was inspired to preach that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of other nations. Israel’s god, the supreme God of all existence, controls all the armies in the world. God decides which armies will win and which will lose, even when Israelites are not involved in the battle.

For Jeremiah, the prophetic insight that God rules all armies made the wars of his own lifetime meaningful. God had a master plan. Egypt would be humbled. Eventually the Babylonians would also be defeated. And in the long run, the Israelites would outlast all other peoples.

You must not fear,

My servant Jacob

—declares YHWH—

For I am with you.

For I will make an end of all the nations

Among which I have banished you,

But with you I will not make an end. (Jeremiah 46:28)

Personally, I shrink inside when I sing a prayer that includes the term YHVH Tzevaot. If God is the ruler of all armies, then God is responsible for the carnage and suffering of all wars—which are apparently necessary for God’s master plan.

If God were the Master Planner, controlling the actions of mutable human beings, surely God could come up with a better plan than this. If human beings hold ultimate responsibility for wars, then God is not the Master Planner, not the God of Armies.

Sorry, Jeremiah.

Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 2

March 30, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:

* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.

lamb 2* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food.  This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.

* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.

Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn.  Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.

Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:

The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt.  The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.

Egyptian kneading trough

Egyptian kneading trough

I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing.  If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house.  Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour?  The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.

Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:

Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz.  Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month.  Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying:  Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.

Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays.  Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year.  Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.

But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.

In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.

Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person.  He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.

Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence.  Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):

Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.

By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses.  We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.

That is as far as Hirsch went.  But I wonder:  Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine?  What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?

During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah.  We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.

But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.

But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.

matzah001

The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel.  By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week.  That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.

So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.

May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.

Bo: Impenetrable Darkness

January 18, 2015 at 9:43 am | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Blood.  Frogs.  Lice.  Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations).  Pestilence.  Boils.  Hail.  Locusts.  Darkness.  Death of the Firstborn.

These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go.  Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).

Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

God said to Moses:  Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt.  And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days.  No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.  But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)

choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.

afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.

The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)

What is so terrible about this darkness?  If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out.  They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water.  They could comfort each other.

But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.

This darkness can be felt.  The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”.  Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.

In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions.  What if there are no gods?  Does my spouse wish I were dead?  What if I don’t really care about my own children? Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.

The Torah adds: No one could see his brother.  This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh.  As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues.  Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.

Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others.  Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.

At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart.  Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility.  The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness.  The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up.  Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.

Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.

The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh.  Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like.  But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.

As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.

stars in blackAnd I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness.  I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping.  I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters.  And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.

May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.

Bo: The Dog in the Night

January 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

To me, dogs are pets. Most dogs have appealing personalities, and the love between dog and human is real. I rarely cry, but I cried when our dog died.

In the Torah, dogs are bad news. The ancient Israelites did not domesticate dogs until late in the First Temple period, even though their neighbors had long been training dogs for hunting, herding, and guarding. So most of the 24 references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible view them as disgusting feral scavengers. Calling a man a dog (or worse, a dead dog) means that he is the lowest of the low.

The first appearance of the Hebrew word for dog, kelev, is in this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”).

Moses said: Thus said God: In the middle of the night, I Myself will go out in the midst of Egypt. And every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn beast. Then there will be loud wailing in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has never happened, and the like of which will not happen again. But as for all the children of Israel, not a dog yecheratz its tongue against man or beast; in order that you shall know that God makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Exodus/Shemot 11:4-7)

yecheratz = will cut, will use a sharp instrument, will decide

On the night of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, not a dog will use its tongue as a sharp instrument against the Israelites. In other words, while God is killing Egyptians, not even a dog will growl or bark to threaten the Israelites.

The verses translated above include two contrasts between the highest and the lowest. First, God says all the firstborn of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones. The phrase “slave-woman behind the millstones” is a translation of a phrase that an Egyptian document uses to indicate someone of the lowest possible social class. In other words, God will make no exceptions; everyone belonging to Egypt will suffer, regardless of social position, and regardless of guilt or innocence.

Next, the Torah says that everyone belonging to Israel will be safe from all threats: from the highest power possible–God Itself–to the lowest danger–dogs. In the middle of the night, while God is killing the Egyptian firstborn, and the Israelites are eating their Passover lamb, roaming dogs  will not bite any Israelite humans or beasts. They will not even bark.

This reminds me of the dog that did not bark in the night in “Silver Blaze”, a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Gregory asks Holmes, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident.”

Sherlock Holmes has deduced that the guard-dog was silent in the middle of the night because the intruder was not a stranger, but the dog’s owner.

The passage in Exodus/Shemot contrasts the loud wailing of the Egyptians with the silence of the dogs. Dogs get agitated when their owners start screaming and wailing, and they respond by whimpering and barking. The dogs who will not growl or bark during the night of the death of the firstborn clearly do not have Egyptian owners. The Israelites who wrote down the Torah thought of dogs as ownerless wanderers, so the silent dogs do not belong to the children of Israel, either. Whose dogs are they?

And it was at midnight when God struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on this throne, to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon, and every firstborn beast. (Exodus 12:29)

God goes from house to house in Egypt that night, skipping over only the houses of the Israelites. But the dogs roaming in the streets are silent, like the dog in “Silver Blaze”–because they recognize their owner.

I want to be like a dog. I don’t want to be the lowest of the low. But I do want to recognize my owner.

I have often wondered why the scout in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar who argues that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and trust God to give them the land, is named Caleb, Kaleiv in Hebrew. His name comes from the same root as kelev, “dog”. Yet Caleb’s actions are all virtuous, not base and low, the way most dogs in the Torah behave. Perhaps Caleb is named after the dogs in Egypt—because he, too, recognized God.

Bo, Beshallach: Clouds and East Wind

January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | 1 Comment

This is the d’var Torah I delivered as part of my graduation as a maggidah:

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Livestock disease. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.

Today’s Torah portion picks up with the plague of locusts, goes into darkness, and brings death to the firstborn. Then, finally, Pharaoh releases the children of Israel.

Why locusts? One morning when I was in college in California, I stepped outside and—crunch! The ground was blanketed with crickets. They covered the lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. Their bodies were so close together, you couldn’t see the ground. Every time somebody opened a door, crickets jumped inside the building.

Those crickets on campus didn’t eat a lot of vegetation before they died. They were a wonder, but not a plague. They were amateurs compared to the locusts in Egypt. The Torah says:

And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a an east wind into the land, all that day and all the night … (Exodus/Shemot, Bo, 10:13)
And the locust-swarm went up over the whole land of Egypt … (Bo, 10:14)
It covered the sight of all the land, and the land went dark. It devoured all the vegetation … and all the fruit … that remained after the hail. And there was no green left, in the trees or in the field, in all the land of Egypt. (Bo, 10:15)

Now that’s a plague.

You can watch a locust-swarm flying on YouTube. When the sun shines on it, millions of locust-wings glitter like a sea of sparks. And when the locusts swirl in front of the sun, they make a dark cloud, like a gigantic billow of smoke.

This reminds me of how God manifests as a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, in next week’s Torah portion. While the pillar of cloud and fire is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them. They meet at the Red Sea. Then the pillar of cloud and fire circles back, to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, the Torah says,

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind, all the night … and split the waters. (Exodus/Shemot, Beshallach, 14:21)

Both times, God humbles the Egyptians and frees the Israelites with a moving, swirling cloud that sometimes glitters and sometimes darkens.

Both times, God also brings in a ruach-kadim. Ruach means wind—or spirit. Kedem means east—or the place of origin. So the “east wind” is also the “spirit of the beginning”.

The first east wind brings in a vast cloud of locusts that finishes off Egypt’s plant life, and dooms Pharaoh to rule over a dead land. This east wind is Pharaoh’s enemy because he cannot accept the “spirit of beginning”. He is unable to change his ways and make a fresh start.

The second east wind parts the sea so the Israelites can escape from the Egyptian army and live. The east wind is their ally because, once they get over their initial despair, they embrace the “spirit of beginning”. They leave Egypt, ready to make a fresh start.

I think the holy “spirit of beginning” touches our lives, too—whether we see the swirling cloud or not. When we are really stuck, unable to choose anything new, we risk being devoured by a cloud of locusts. But—we have the ability to cast aside that mood, and follow the pillar of cloud and fire instead.

May each one of us receive the strength to embrace the spirit of beginning, and make a fresh start.

Bo: Serving God with Possessions

April 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Bo | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on January 17, 2010.)

And also our possessions will go with us—not a hoof will remain—because from them we will take to serve Y*h, our god, and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there.  (Exodus/Shemot 10:26)

miknanu=our possessions, our property—usually livestock

“Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land.  Tell ol’ Pharaoh, let my people go!”

Actually, Moses does not ask Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go free.  He only asks Pharaoh to let them go out into the wilderness for a three-day holiday to serve their god.  The implication is that then the slaves will all return to their jobs in Egypt.

Yet God predicts, and Moshe knows, that in the end, after the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh will drive the Israelites out of Egypt altogether.  Then God will lead them to the promised land.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Come), Pharoah reacts to plague number nine, darkness, by telling Moshe that all the Israelites can go to serve God in the wilderness, even the children—but they must leave their livestock behind.  Moshe refuses with the explanation—or rationalization—that “from them we will take to serve Y*h, our god, and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there”.

The Israelite slaves do not possess much except for the cows, sheep, and goats their ancestors brought down from Canaan.  But Moshe insists they must take all their possessions with them for the three-day holiday.  Pharaoh rightly suspects his slaves are planning to escape, instead of return.  He also seems to suspect that worshiping their god with sacrifices is merely a pretext for leaving.

In that, I believe, he is mistaken.  Moshe makes sure that the exodus focuses on religious service, not for three days but for forty years.  And the Israelites do worship God with sacrifices.  As well as some livestock, they sacrifice their security, exchanging their familiar Egyptian masters for a new and unpredictable master, a god who can create terrifying plagues, a god who might ask anything of them.

Today, many of us serve God by following ethical rules, praying at the right times, and observing other rituals.  This kind of service can be a conscious effort, even a sacrifice.  Or it can become lip service, not service of the heart.  What do we do when our inner world changes and we need to hear and follow the call of the divine, but we don’t know how anymore?

We can look over our possessions, and ask God what needs to be sacrificed.  Are we too attached to our “livestock”, our material goods?  Are we clinging to our present status—high or low?  To the security of our present life?  To something else that keeps us enslaved in a narrow place?

What do we need to sacrifice in order to free ourselves to leave our Egypts and enter a new world?

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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