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On Va'era

This upcoming Shabbat we'll be reading parashat Va'era.  Three things especially interest me in this portion: the notion that Moses considers himself unable to speak God's words, Pharaoh's heart hardening, and how to read the plague of hail and fire in the wake of recent natural disasters.

Early in the portion, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelite people that God will free them, but they're too ground-down by slavery to listen to him. Then God instructs Moses to give Pharaoh that famous ultimatum. Moses demurs, protesting that he is (according to the JPS translation) "a man of impeded speech" -- sometimes rendered as "a man of uncircumcised lips."

The latter translation may not be precise, but what an evocative metaphor! It underlies the midrashic notion that Moses stuttered or had a speech defect; it suggests he feels his lips aren't sacred enough to speak God's words. Usually the passage is read as "hey, if the Israelites wouldn't listen to me, surely Pharaoh won't either, because I am of uncircumcised lips," but in this d'var Torah by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan we see the causality inverted. He riffs on the writings of Aviva  Zornberg (who was, in turn, drawing on the Sfat Emet):

"They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips."  This interpretation turns the usual on its head. Rather than speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is listening, or the lack thereof, that creates speech. Prophets may only prophesy if there are people to listen. If Pharaoh and the people are unwilling to hear then it is as if Moses is unable to speak. In other words, if a prophet speaks in a desert and there is no one there to hear him (or willing to hear him) does he really say anything?

According to this reading, without listeners speech is meaningless or impossible. Reading it that way, I empathize with Moses, who felt his power to communicate diminished by others' unwillingness to listen. I can imagine how terrifying and overwhelming it might be to feel trapped between the imperative to speak ("God wants me to say these things") and the fear of failure ("I won't be listened-to; I can't do what God wants; I'm not enough.")

What's interesting to me is that after a few plagues, Pharaoh seems willing to listen. He even acknowledges that God is righteous and he is in the wrong...but Moses knows that the repentance won't stick. And sure enough, it doesn't; in the first lines of next week's portion, God explains that he has hardened Pharaoh's heart. What's up with that? If Pharaoh were willing to let the Israelites go after only seven plagues, why does God harden his heart and require the rest of the story to unfold as it does?

Fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno suggested that if Pharaoh's heart had not been hardened, he might have let the Israelites go in response to the plagues (a reactive decision), whereas God wanted Pharaoh to let the Israelites go after developing a desire to do God's will (a proactive decision). In this way, his people's suffering could produce a kind of enlightenment which would cause him to do the right thing for the right reason. (Except, of course, that it doesn't; in the end, he renegs on his intent to let the Israelites go, and as a result his armies drown in the Sea of Reeds. But that's another story for another week.)

Dr. Erich Fromm had thoughts on this matter of "hardened hearts," upon which he expounded in his book You Shall Be As Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition:

"Every evil act tends to harden man's heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man's heart hardens, the less freedom does he has to change; the more is he determined already by a previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man's heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical or spiritual destruction."

I understand Fromm to be saying that we can't separate Pharaoh's character from his hardened heart, that it's his own evil actions which have calcified his ability to feel. But there comes a point in the story where God acknowledges that God has hardened Pharaoh's heart, which strikes me as a different thing altogether. Is that merciful or fair?

Shaul Magid explores that question in his essay Pharaoh's Hardened Heart: Cruel and Unusual Punishment and Covenantal Ethics. He teases out the interpretations of Rashi, Nachmanides, and Maimonides, which he characterizes as in turn exegetical, exegetical/philosophical, and philosophical. I'm especially intrigued by his citation of Rashi's point that after the first several plagues, the Torah says "Pharaoh's heart was hardened" (note the passive voice) -- the construction "God hardened his heart" doesn't appear until late in the narrative, suggesting that Pharaoh had already rendered himself incapable of repentance by hardening his own heart. I also find compelling Magid's reading of Maimonides' suggestion that "[Pharaoh's] loss of free-will is only a punishment resulting from free-will (i.e., the continuous choice to act wickedly). It functions inside as well as outside God's covenant with Israel. As a punishment, in both cases (with Israelites and non-Israelites) it is only temporary. Free-will returns after the punishments are complete." The essay is dense but fascinating, and is worth the time it takes to read.

In my shul we read on the triennial cycle (we won't read all of Va'era this Shabbat; we'll just read the latter third). As it happens, I'm our Torah reader. The portion of Va'era which I'll be reading (Exodus 9:22-35) focuses on the plague of hail in some detail. We learn that this hail came with thunder, and with fire streaming down to the ground. What does the hail signify; why hail? The sage Eliyahu Rabbah wrote (as translated by Braude and Kapstein) that it hailed:

Because [the Egyptians] had assigned Israelites to be planters of gardens, orchards, and of all kinds of trees, all these located in the outermost parts of the wilderness, so that the Israelites would not be able to go to their homes where they could couch with their wives and be fruitful and multiply, (as the Holy One had commanded them). Therefore the Holy One sent down hail which broke all the plants the Israelites had set out ...

Yep. The plague of hail was relevant, according to this interpretation, because it destroyed the orchards -- allowing the beleaguered Israelite slaves to come home and enact the mitzvah of having sex with their wives. It's a slightly bizarre reading to modern sensibilities, but it's a great example of how sex-positive my tradition is!

On a less humorous note, I'm struck by the analogy between the recent South Asian earthquake-tsunami disaster and the plague of hail as it's described in Torah. Both wiped away villages and fields, humans and beasts. Does the awareness of natural disaster in our world today change how we feel about the plague, or about the notion of God sending such a plague to make a point?

As Karen wrote recently, no amount of text study seems to make it easier to explain suffering on this scale. I wonder whether the arrow points the other way: whether engaging with the disaster, painful as that process is, might give us new lenses through which to do our text study. In verse eighteen, Moses warns the Egyptians about the coming hail, so those people and animals which stayed indoors are spared; how different might the effects of the tsunami have been if an early warning system had been in place?  Though I too believe that God is still speaking, in today's world God doesn't generally offer this kind of direct advice:  generating warnings about natural disasters, and preserving harvests and livelihoods, is our responsibility to one another.

I'm still not sure what to make of verse 9:16, "I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world." That sounds awfully ego-driven, and it's tempting to write it off as an outmoded understanding of divinity. Surely a God who would send natural disasters to make God's-self famous is not the force of revelation I want active in my own life! So I'm trying to read it in a different way. Yes, God sent the plagues as a response to Egyptian injustice -- but God also guarded the survival of the Egyptian people, because the true sign of power is not destruction but mercy.