Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bo (Torah)

“Know you not yet that Egypt is lost”: The Ten Plagues and the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

One of the classical problems of Jewish theology is the issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. If God grants man free will, and recompenses him for good or evil in accordance with his moral actions, how than can He “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, thereby depriving him of that selfsame free will?

Numerous solutions have been suggested to this problem. Maimonides speaks of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, not as an interference with Pharaoh, but as a kind of punishment. Noting that the phrase “and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” only appears in connection with the last five plagues (albeit it admittedly appears in 7:3, in the overall introduction to the plagues), he suggests that, after a certain stage of stubbornness, God prevented Pharaoh from repenting, by “hardening” his heart, fixing it in its earlier pattern (Teshuvah 6.3). Hence, God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not any supernatural intervention in the inner workings of his mind or soul to deny him free will; rather, by the very act of sending the plagues, his heart became hardened, through the workings of his own inner psychology. Such things are familiar to all of us from everyday life, in domestic situations and the like, where stubborn types become harder and more insistent on getting their way in face of threats and adversity.

Be that as it may, the question of Pharaoh’s character is an interesting one, that can also be understood in purely human terms. Pharaoh is a megalomaniac tyrant, who believes himself to be all-powerful and hence immune from any harm. He seems driven by a self-destructive impulse, which disregards reality. (During the Gulf War, which began shortly before Shabbat Bo 1991 [the first Scud missile fell on Tel Aviv that Thursday night], I compared Pharaoh to Saddam Hussein. But with a decade’s retrospect, the latter really does seem to be a crafty type who knows who to survive; a master of PR, who knew that a certain kind of bluff and bluster can bring about a peculiar kind of respect and hands-off attitude from others, who perhaps find it difficult to believe that a person can lie so blatantly).

If Abraham was the embodiment of hesed, kindness; if Yaakov was that of Tiferet —the harmonious balance of all the basic ethical and even aesthetic qualities; then Pharaoh, le-havdil, must be seen is the embodiment of pure ego and self-absorption. Note Ezekiel’s succinct description: “Pharaoh, the great monster that lies in the midst of his streams, and says ‘the Nile is mine and I have made it’” (Ezek 29:3).

This may be the sense of the Rabbinic dictum : “Whoever is angry… Whoever is haughty, is as if he had worshipped idols.” Idolatry is not only mere fetishism, but the making of anything other than God the center of ones existence—a stance that also (or perhaps especially?) includes ones own self.

Several times Pharaoh, in the midst of a particular plague, runs to Moses to tell him, “Pray to your God to leave off me, and I will let your people go,” only to return to his old ways as soon as he finds that the plague has been called off. On one occasion, after the plague of hail, he even confesses: “hatati hapa’am: I have sinned this time: The Lord is righteous, and I and my people are in the wrong” (9:27). But there, too, he immediately goes back on it. So much so, that at one point Pharaoh’s own servants say, “Do you not know that Egypt is lost” (10:7) -- that is, that you are destroying your own country by this stubbornness?

What is going on here? Is he play acting—that is, each time he consents to send the people, is he merely giving lip service, harboring the mental reservation that he will go back on it the moment God lets up—or is there some strange psychological mechanism at work here that we need to attempt understand? Perhaps his egocentricity is so great that he generally shuts out unpleasant objective reality, so that he does not see, on the simplest and most basic level, what is going on in front of him. Periodically, something so overwhelming happens—some natural catastrophe, some disaster, which is what the plagues ultimately were—that forces him to see the world as it is. But then, as soon as it passes, the old mechanism of denial reasserts itself.

This is something that all of us have experienced. For example; I once saw the results of a multi-car traffic collision on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, perhaps ten or twenty minutes after it occurred: wrecks piled up all over the road; it seemed quite likely that someone might have been killed. The passing line of cars slowed down, saw what has obviously happened—and within five or ten kilometers up the road, the drivers were back to speeding, careless passing and weaving in and out of lanes, etc., as if nothing had happened. The old slogan of denial: “It won’t happen to me.”

Or may Pharaoh be better described as ultimately weak, and easily swayed by momentary impulses? And how does this relate to his “hardening his heart”?

"Go to Pharoah"

Hasidism speaks of this verse, the initial line in our portion, as being read metaphorically, or symbolically, in the following way: Pharaoh symbolizes evil, exile, all the forces of negativity. “Go to Pharaoh” is read as a command, or an imperative, whereby the religious person, at some point, needs to confront whatever powers of negativity exist—in himself or in his soul, in his own human microcosm/macrocosm. (This reading is in the spirit of the Toldot Yaakov Yosef, who sought in every Torah passage the personal meaning for each person’s service of God: in this case, the need to enter into spiritually problematic parts of our life.)

R. Nahman of Braslav penned what is perhaps the classical homiletic on this verse. In his famous “Torah of the Void” (Likkutei Muharan I:64), he says that one must “go” even to that place where God is absent, to that “void space” left over in Creation, behind the original fulness of Divine plenum, and subsequently pushed aside by the place “filled in” by Creation. On a more mundane, or practical level, perhaps, he saw this as a mandate to engage in dialogue with heretics—to confront those questions ”which come from the place where you do not yet have an answer.”

Degel Mahaneh Ephraim takes as his starting point that Pharaoh’s name is written in the tefillin (in the section “Vehaya ki yeviakha,” Ex 13:15). Why? His answer is based on a both mystical and historical / theological concept: we had to go to Egypt in order to be redeemed. Were it not for Pharaoh, there would have been no Exodus story. Hence, his name forms an essential part of the tefillin; as “foil” for God’s plan, he helped to bring about the Exodus which serves as proof of Gods’ power and involvement in world.

Then there was a latter-day neo-Hasidic homily on “go to Pharaoh,“ which I heard during the early heady days of the ‘60’s youth culture—and of the nascent Jewish “counter culture”—at a Third Meal one Shabbat Bo. The speaker articulated the sense of many that the Divine voice was heard specifically in the voice that cried “liberate”—to forge ahead on new, experimental, non-traditional paths—while the voice of the tradition, with its constraints and rules and limitations of the mitzvot, was a kind of “Pharaoh” (Mitzrayim, “the narrowed one”). Nevertheless, even that seemingly timid, conservative voice, which many evidently rejected, comes from God: it is ultimately the voice of the Torah that says “go unto Pharaoh”: that is, one needs to live ones life in a constant dialectic beyond “liberation” and “tradition”—and not only throwing off fetters.

And I passed by, and behold, your time was the age for love” (Ezek 16:8)

The second half of this portion tells the story of the Exodus proper: the night of the smiting of the first-born, the taking of the paschal lamb, and the departure of the Israelites, during the wee hours of the morning, from their homes in Egypt. The description is a very elaborate one, interweaving elements of narrative and law—the latter in turn mixing together instructions addressed to the generation of the Exodus and commandments conveyed to future generations. Although we rarely think about in these terms, such a detailed presentation of law based upon a specific event is very unusual, if not unique, in the Torah. (Compare the laconic presentations of the Shabbat and of Sukkot or, on the other hand, the self-contained frameworks for the corpuses of civil law or laws of Temple sacrifices). Why this somewhat strange mixture?

The law of the Passover is conventionally considered the first “real” mitzvah in the Torah. The commandment to procreate in Genesis 1 is sui generis for many obvious reasons, and is in any event as much a blessing as an imperative; that of circumcision, given to Abraham in Genesis 17, is a symbol of the covenant that at that point is still very much in the making; etc. In fact, the famous comment with which Rashi begins his Torah commentary in Gen 1:1 essentially asks (in very colloquial paraphrase): The Torah really should have begun with Exodus 12, so why does it need to tell us all this stuff about Creation and the patriarchs? The implied assumption is, of course, that the Torah is basically a book of law, and as such could have started with the first real law. Moreover, this chapter is in fact the starting point for the classical tannaitic, halakhic midrashim—the Mekhilta on Exodus, followed by the Sifra on Leviticus and Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy. One can readily see why: this is the first chapter that challenges the masters of halakhic midrash to ask the question that they constantly ask, in one way or another: Why does the Torah formulate things in exactly this way, and not some other? What are we to make of the numerous repetitions and near repetitions and jumping back and forth between narrative and legislation here? What laws can be inferred from the subtle variations in language between seemingly identical verses, such as 12:15, 13:3; 13:6-7, all of which say that “you shall not eat hametz seven days”?

I would like to suggest the following very simple insight : just as Va’era provides a theological first, through the introduction of an in-some-sense “new” Divine Name, so does this chapter provide a halakhic first—the beginning of the Torah as law in earnest. And both stem from the wish to teach the same basic fact; the centrality of the Exodus on all levels of Judaism. It is the starting point for all things.

This idea is conveyed by the following midrash, in which the halakhic and the theological are fused together in one unity. Rashi in 12:6 quotes the Mekhilta:

“Rabbi Matya ben Heresh said: It says : ‘And I passed by and saw you, and behold, your age was the time for love [Ezek 16:8]. The oath I made to Abraham that I would redeem his children has reached fruition. But they had no mitzvot with which to involve themselves so that I might redeem them, as it says “yet you were naked and exposed” [v. 7]. And He gave them two mitzvot: the blood of Passover [i.e., the Paschal lamb] and the blood of circumcision, and they circumcised themselves that very night, as it says ‘wallowing in your bloods’ [ibid., v. 6]—in two kinds of blood…” (Another noted midrash on the same passage in Ezekiel connects these to the declaration,” and I said to you, in your blood, live! And I said to you, in your blood, live!”)

The midrash is suffused with romantic imagery, in which God sees Israel as a desirable young maiden, ready for love; the long-awaited fulfillment of the promise to the Patriarchs is seen as an act of betrothal, i.e., the realization of that love. On the other hand, the mitzvot are seen as a vehicle or tool with which Israel, at this poignant moment, somehow express their own love for God, and their readiness to unite with him.

Yet another factor that adds to the centrality of the Exodus passage in Jewish imagination: the motif of redemption is one that is greater than life. The Jewish people has known many exiles, many conquests by other nations, many periods of homelessness and wandering and even great suffering and persecution in their exiles. Hence, the motif of Exile and redemption, shown here in very direct, straightforward terms, became in turn loaded with the later experience. The Exodus became an archetype, a central symbol: all exiles are Egypt, all redemptions are the Exodus. M. A. Mirkin, in his critical commentary to the Midrash Rabbah, waxes lyrical in his introduction to Chapter 15 of Exodus Rabbah, comparing this chapter to a great lighthouse, whose beams light up a dark and gloomy night, felt in the most distant corners… “Its significance in Judaism,” he writes, “is no less than that of the verse, ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light.’….”


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