By Larry Kane
This Parsha is the story about Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh ending with the ten plagues. Actually only seven are in this week’s Parsha and the last three follow next week. We all know this story from Passover. There are several observations that are important to make about this week’s Torah reading.
For the first time, God made known God’s actual name, spelled by the Hebrew letters yod-hey-vav-hey. According to Jewish tradition, we do not try to pronounce God’s actual name. The exception was for the High Priests on Yom Kippur, when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing. Instead we say Adonai, literally “My Lord”. And in general conversation we simply say HaShem, which literally is “The Name”.
By sharing God’s name, God shared part of God’s power with us. That is why we are commanded to “not use God’s name in vain”. This commandment is not about cursing, not about writing Gee Hyphen Dee, but about using the power of God’s name for an inappropriate purpose.
Second, the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh was not simply about slavery and freedom. It was also a confrontation about religion.
To Pharaoh, there was only one true faith. In Egypt Pharaoh was God and there could be no other god before him. Moses did not say, “Let my people go so we can be free.” He said in the name of God, “Let my people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh’s first reaction was, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not
know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.”
Pharaoh could not accept another religion as true. The same question haunts us today. Can we accept the truth of another religious faith? Must I say that if my faith is correct, then other faiths must be wrong? Or can I see the wisdom, beauty, and truth in other faiths; in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mormonism? How far does pluralism and tolerance go?
When we are in Chicago, we study with a very orthodox, but worldly Rabbi. Being worldly, however, does not make him tolerant. He firmly believes Judaism is the only true religion because other “tribes” turned HaShem’s offer down before Abraham accepted it. While I understand his position, this narrow thinking gives us, in part, the extreme position we see in most religions. The far right is no better in Judaism than Islam.
Dare I judge another’s religious faith? I am willing to declare another’s faith as true if that faith turns its adherents into more ethical, more spiritual human beings. Does faith make people better? Does it help them to observe the fundamentals principles to love God and love their neighbor? Does it add a spiritual dimension to their life and give them a sense of purpose as they live in the material world? If another faith does this, I am prepared to say that faith is wise, beautiful and true. This is the only consistent conclusion we can draw if we believe Pharaoh was wrong in his belief that he was the only God.
Last, there is the message in this Parsha that addresses the oldest and most difficult philosophical problem of free will verses determinism. Are we free agents acting according to our own free will? Or has God already decided in advance our behavior, making us like actors in a play speaking the line He has already written for us?
Today it is popular to see our behavior as pre-determined. When we behave improperly, we often claim that we are the victims our genes, or our nature, of some inner drives that have been preset and are out of our control. Or else we are the victims of racism, sexism, poverty, social and political forces that are also out of our control. It is easy to say that we are not responsible for our behavior.
This argument is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion. God brought ten plagues upon Egypt. Each time, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then brought another plague. On the surface, God seems to act unjustly. Pharaoh had no control; he was simply acting as God has pre-programmed him to act. Why were Pharaoh and the rest of Egypt being punished?
However, a deeper understanding reveals a profound truth about Pharaoh’s behavior. For the first five plagues, the Torah teaches that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Only after these five does the Torah begin to teach that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In the beginning Pharaoh was responsible for his own stubborn behavior. Eventually, his stubbornness became second nature, almost to the point where he could no longer control it.
Judaism teaches that we humans have free will, which we can act according to our good inclination or our evil inclination. In the beginning, the evil inclination is like a spider web; it is easy to step out of its grasp. After a while, it becomes like a heavy rope. The wrong choices become second nature, as if God made us that way.
We see this all the time. A teen, encouraged by friends will shoplift an item. First there is usually guilt associated with peer pressure. After a while, shoplifting becomes second nature the teen does not even think about it. The same can be seen of a variety of destructive behaviors; uncontrolled anger, drinking, drug use, violence, corporate cheating, and of course, as Pharaoh has shown, stubbornness.
Improper behavior begins as an impulse. At this point it is relatively easy to change and get on the right track. After a while, it becomes a habit. Soon habit becomes part of our character. It is now part of our nature, almost as if God made us that way. At this point, it is extremely difficult to change our ways. It is much easier to play victim and say “God made me that way.” We should all work and pray that we can do better than this.
We all need to understand, resist, and work hard not to fall into this trap which is our doing, not HaShem’s.