Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

“For I have hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart and the hearts of his servants … “ (Exodus 10:1)

On my list of most frequently asked questions is: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and bring about the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Without question, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a complex subject. Traditional Jewish commentators point out that early in the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh, the text states: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened,” (Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text begins to say, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies…

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Etched Into My Heart

IMG_0754Cantor Simon and Rabbi Fuchs

Cantor Murray Simon, pictured with me in the photo above, composed a beautiful arrangement of one of my favorite prayers for our joint installation this past Shabbat Eve as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, Sanibel, Florida. It is a great honor to work with him.

The joint installation ceremony for Cantor Murray Simon and me as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands on Shabbat Eve, January 5, 2018, is an evening I shall never forget.

Rabbi Paul Citrin, career-long friend of both Murray and me delivered a stirring keynote sermon.

Sanibel City Manager, Judy Zimomra, Jeanne Tobin, with whom I have shared so many significant life moments for more than 40 years, and Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC, which hosts our congregation, all added unique eloquence and flavor to the occasion in their remarks.

And then Cantor Simon touched my heart in a very special way.

He introduced the musical setting he composed to one of my favorite prayers. Its English translation is:

We praise You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with Commandments and commands us to engage in the study of Torah.

To have the privilege to teach is why I became a rabbi, and before each lesson I lead, I offer this prayer.

In those few words we find a major reasons we Jews have survived and continue to thrive after all that we have endued these past 2000 years.

For Jews study is not just a desirable thing to do; it is a commandment for everyone.

Without question every religion has its scholars, and Jewish sages are by no means superior to them, but to my knowledge, Judaism is the only religion that looks upon study as a form of worship.

This commandment is the reason that in Dark Ages–when overall human literacy was less than ten per cent–literacy among Jews was nearly universal.

In Jewish Communal life the scholar was the most revered figure, and Jewish legends about the primacy of learning abound.

Hillel, our tradition teaches, was too poor to afford the minimal admission fee to the academy, so he climbed up on the roof in the dead of winter to listen to the lesson through the chimney. Snow fell, but he was so engrossed in the lesson that he paid it no heed. The next morning people found him half frozen on the roof. He became on of our greatest Sages (B. Yoma 35b).

Another great scholar, Akiba, was an illiterate shepherd until age 40. His wealthy employer’s daughter, Rachel, fell in love with him and saw his potential. She married him on condition that he go away to study.

Her father disowned her and she lived in poverty. Meanwhile Akiba studied for years and became a great Sage. When he returned to his village a famous man, his disciples tried to shoo the poor woman away amidst the throng that greeted the great scholar. But Akiba embraced his long-suffering wife and declared, “She is responsible for all my learning“ (Ketubot 62b-63a).

In times of persecution Jews have risked their life to study. When authorities outlawed Jewish learning. Akiba himself suffered unspeakable torture and a martyr’s death for continuing to teach his disciples in defiance of the Roman decree proscribing such activity (B. Berachot 61b).

Because of the courage of those who risked everything to study our people are alive today and contribute to the benefit of society in measure that belies the fact that Jews comprise less than 1/2 of one per cent of the world’s population.

I thank God that we live in a time and place where I can study and teach Torah and all it represents freely. That is why the prayer commanding us to study is always on my mind. Now I am for very grateful that through his beautiful composition, Cantor Murray Simon has etched that prayer into my heart.

 

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An Installation at My Age? Oy!

Cantor Simon and Rabbi FuchsCantor Murray Simon and I in front of the ark at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands

 

I never thought it would happen.

When I retired from Congregation Beth Israel in 2011, I thought my installations and new professional beginnings were in the past.

I retired then because I felt that at age 65 I had done all that I could as a Congregational Rabbi. I realized that my points of reference are very different than those of the people congregations must attract now and in the future. I simply do not listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows or see the same movies and plays that are popular with young people today.

I thought I would read more, write more, enjoy my family more and travel (which, thankfully, I have).

When I retired I did not anticipate becoming President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The opportunity to represent Reform Jewish values and practice in 65 communities on five continents, which that position gave me, was priceless. Even though I did not come close to meeting the expectation the lay leaders of the organization had in terms of fund raising, I would not trade the experiences I had during those 18 months for anything.

The WUPJ contacts I made led to the offer to serve as guest Rabbi in Milan in 2013 and then to spend ten weeks in each of the past three years teaching and speaking in German schools (with Vickie), synagogues, at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and in some two-dozen churches.

I will not hide it.

When the WUPJ asked me to step down just weeks before my second open-heart surgery. I was devastated. Looking back over my subsequent opportunities in Milan and in Germany, I can say it was a blessing in disguise.

And then along came Sanibel! (I have told the story of how I got here in my blog essay, “Sanibel Sunrise.”)

For sure I never expected to serve as Rabbi of a congregation again, but this opportunity seems tailor-made for me.

It is a congregation largely of retirees interested in deepening their Jewish knowledge, enjoying worship and still making a difference in the world around us. There is a minimum of administrative duties, which I was never good at anyway, and there is no youth education program to oversee. It is a position that leaves some time for writing and other interests.

The community has embraced Vickie warmly, and there is so much she enjoys doing on Sanibel. Yes, this opportunity seems just right for both of us at this stage in our lives.

The privilege of working with a Cantor like Murray Simon is an added bonus. I have learned much from him already, and I treasure the friendship developing among Toby, Vickie, Murray and me.

Our joint installation will be even more special because of the presence of our mutual friend, Rabbi Paul Citrin.

I met Rabbi Citrin as a first year rabbinical student in Los Angeles in 1968. He was the most advanced Hebrew student in our class, and I was the least. He took me under his wing then and has had my back ever since.

He and Cantor Simon met and became best friends right after Paul’s ordination when he came to serve Temple Israel in Boston, where Murray was the Cantor.

Twenty years ago, I thought my installation ceremony in West Hartford would be the last one of my career. Now I look forward to one more. With Rabbi Citrin officiating I know it will be special for Cantor Simon and me. If you can join us, we would love to have you!

 

The installation will take place at 7:30 PM, January 5 (where Bat Yam Temple of the Islands meets) at Sanibel Congregational UCC, 2050 Periwinkle Way.

 

 

www.rabbifuchs.com

 

Secular It Is, But …

“Secular it is, but …” were the words that my Rabbi, Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, began his January message in the Temple Sharey Tefilo (East Orange, NJ) Bulletin.

His point was that for Jews the real New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurred sometime in September but that the beginning of a new secular year could also have significance.

Rosh Hashanah begins a period of intense self-scrutiny culminating ten days later on Yom Kippur. During that time our tradition implores us to engage in serious soul searching with an eye toward improving ourselves in the New Year.

For me, Rabbi Annes’ message and the arrival of the new secular year spark a question: “That Rosh Hashanah stuff, how are you doing with that?”

In our weekly Torah reading we transition from the Book of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus. In the first weekly portion God encounters Moses in a Burning Bush, and in that vision, Moses charts the course for the remainder of his life. He is no longer content to be a shepherd in Midian. He accepts God’s commission to return to Egypt and lead our people from slavery to freedom.

Our Sages comment that a burning bush is not such an unusual site in the desert. Only a person of great sensitivity and insight would take time to notice that although the bush was burning, the flames did not consume it. Only one such as Moses could have seen a life-changing message in that bush.

I think “burning bushes” cross all of our paths from time to time. Will we see the potential in them for us to add purpose and significance to our lives as Moses did or will we, like most people, just pass them by?

January 1, then, is like a booster shot for me. It reminds me of the goals I set for myself on Rosh Hashanah, and hopefully it will spur me to greater efforts to make my life a blessing to others.

Depending on the exigencies of the Hebrew Calendar, January 1 arrives when the Jewish year is ¼ to 1/3 complete. It is a good time to ask myself, have I become any kinder, more understanding, less judgmental as I vowed I would try to be on Yom Kippur? Have I done anything to make someone’s life richer and more fulfilling?

Perhaps, but I can do better.

“Secular it is,” but the arrival of a new calendar year invites us to revisit our hopes and ideals. Will we sleepwalk through our lives or will we look each day for the unconsumed burning bush that ignites in our soul the resolve to make a positive difference in our world?

 

Let’s Talk About Jerusalem

Let’s talk about Jerusalem.

Many have claimed President Trump’s announced intention to recognize Jerusalem, as Israel’s capital is wrong. They claim Jerusalem should be an international city because it is sacred to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.

It is strange. No one denies Mecca as Islam’s holiest city or that Rome is the center of the Catholic Church. But the fact Jerusalem holds analogous status in the hearts of Jews meets resistance.

One must ask, is it anti-Semitism, political naiveté or something else?

If it is anti-Semitism no explanation will do any good. It is a fact that certain people hate Jews and deny the legitimacy of Jerusalem as the Jewish touchstone on those grounds. I pity them their irrational hatred but will not waste words trying to talk them out of it.

For those unaware, though a review of facts might help. I hope so.

Since the time of King David three thousand years ago, Jews have either lived in or longed for Jerusalem.

In darkest hours of persecution and exile our Sages pined, “Better to live in a hovel on a dung heap in Jerusalem than a palace in the diaspora.”

Today, some call for Jerusalem to be an international city, perhaps under the authority of the United Nations. That is exactly the proposal the UN made on November 29 1947 in a proposal that called for the creation of both an Arab and a Jewish state.

Proponents of the Jewish State rejoiced and embraced the proposal. The Arab world denied the proposal claiming they would not tolerate the existence of any Jewish state. Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League vowed that the ensuing war would be like the Mongolian massacres like the crusades and that the rivers would run with Jewish blood.

In that war an armistice divided Jerusalem leaving Jewish holy sites under Arab control. What did they do?

They made the area of the Western Wall a slum a, they desecrated the sacred Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and they used the tombstones to make latrines for Jordanian soldiers. Most importantly, no Jews were permitted access to the Western Wall of the ancient temple courtyard. For 19 years Jordan prevented any Jew from praying at Judaism’s holiest site.

Then came 1967.

In early June of that year, Egypt and Syria announced an alliance to wipe Israel off the map. They mobilized their troops, ordered UN forces away from the buffer that stood between Egypt and Israel and blockaded the straits of Tiran to ships wishing to bring goods to the Israeli port of Eilat.

In response to these threats Israel launched a preemptive strike against Syria and Egypt. In the midst of the fighting Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned Jordan to stay out of the fray. But Jordan ignored the warning and invaded West Jerusalem. In the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting of the war, Israel repulsed Jordan’s invasion and drove her troops across the Jordan River.

Immediately after the war Israel offered peace to the Arab world. The Arab leaders met in a summit at Khartoum in the Sudan and produced at that meeting a declaration known as the “Three No’s.”

  • No peace with Israel
  • No recognition of Israel
  • No negotiation with Israel.

 

Since 1967, the Holy Sites of Christianity are under Christian control and the holy sites of Islam are under Islamic control. .

The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol by the United States does not change this reality. It also does not change the future possibility—when and if peace comes to the regions—that East Jerusalem will be the capitol of a future Palestinian State.

Israel has proved to the world that it will make sacrifices for peace with Egypt and with Jordan. It will make sacrifices for peace with the Palestinians as well.

There is no doubt that the creation of Israel displaced many Arabs from their homes. Many left at the instruction of their leaders who told them to clear the way for the massacre of the Jews.

But Jews forced many to leave as well.

Jewish tradition demands we take no delight in the suffering of our enemy. One of my favorite Midrashim is one in which the Holy One silence the angels who are rejoicing as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds. The Bible itself pays sympathy to the tears of the fallen enemy Sisera in the book of Judges. Similarly we should feel the pain of Arab and Palestinian parents who lose their children in wars and skirmishes against Israel.

And I will say that Israel as the country with the power has the responsibility to make sure the doorway to peace through negotiation stays open.

I would love to see a freeze and a rollback of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I would love to see eases on checkpoints and the ability of Palestinians to travel freely in Israel.

But I sit here safe in the USA, and Israel’s population must live with the security risks such decision would entail.

Today, many Israeli descend from refugees of Arab countries who parents and grandparents in 1948 left places like Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Yemen with the clothes on their back. Their offspring are less likely to advocate Israel take the “risks for peace” that eloquent urbane liberals—both within and outside of Israel—advocate.

My blood chilled when I say a YouTube interview with an Arab mother just after her child successfully underwent a life-saving operation by Israeli doctors. Filmed in the hospital where her child had been saved, she said she would be proud to have that same child become a martyr in a subsequent suicide bombing.

Most Palestinians do not share the mother’s view, of course, but many do, and that is central do the problem today. The Palestinian authorities glorify their martyrs, erect monuments to them and hold them up as examples to emulate.

 

I would love to see peace come to the region. But before that can happen, the Palestinian people and the leaders of both the PLO and Hamas must be willing to recognize and live in peace with the Jewish State of Israel.

Unlikely? Yes, but I will cling to that sliver of hope that Jerusalem, the “Holy City” will finally live up to its name, “the City of Peace.” I cling to the hope that a Palestinian State with its capitol there can live side by side with Israel in mutual harmony and cooperation. To paraphrase Theodor Herzl famous statement: “If both sides will it, it does not have to be just a dream.”

Trump Be Gone

I have had it.

If real life was like the old Gong Show the late Chuck Barris would have pulled the plug on Trump’s tired act months ago.
I know. I am the guy who said, “Give the guy a chance,” a hundred-day chance, after the election. It did not take me that long to realize I was wrong.
How much should the American people bear?
It is too much: Tax cuts for the wealthiest, health care cuts for the poor, uprooting families, costing Americans outrageous amounts in security so he can vacation and golf to his heart’s content.
But then, when so many of us were sure Trump could do nothing right, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s Capitol, and told he UN to stuff their resolution condemning the action.
It is really bizarre.
Of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capitol.

It has been for 3000 years, and it has been the heart of Jewish souls even when it was not under our physical control.
So where does that leave us?
Trump is right as rain about Jerusalem, but on every other score we should drum him out of office.
It reminds me of 1939. In that year Great Britain led the world’s fight against Nazi Germany. In that same year Great Britain promulgated a White Paper so severely limiting Jewish immigration to then Palestine that it condemned untold numbers of Jews to death at Hitler’s hands.
David Ben Gurion’s advice then illumines our thinking today.
He wrote: We shall fight with the British against the Nazi as if there were no White Paper, and we shall oppose the White Paper as if there were no Nazis.
For Jews and other Americans of good will today we must applaud Trump’s affirmation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol. But we must oppose with all our strength his grinding the faces of the poor into the ground, his callous voiding of health care benefits for so many and his complete lack of personal dignity that has made America an object of ridicule around the world.
And so, here is my wish for Donald Trump in 2018:
Thanks for Jerusalem as you resign in disgrace!

 

Our Kids Are Coming to Town

This evening Vickie and I sit in Sanibel, just the two of us!

But tomorrow, God willing, at this time, the house will be teeming with our two sons their two spouses and two kids belonging to each of the two couples.

In an instant, two will turn into ten, and we are so excited.

We have looked forward to their visit for months. We purposely rented a house large enough to accommodate our kids and their children whenever they wish to visit. Having our children visit was integral to our vision when we decided to come to Sanibel.

Vickie has stocked up on so much food, that you would think an army platoon was landing. Neighbors and new friends have lent us a crib, an air mattress, a bicycle with a baby carrier in the back, boogie boards for the beach and so much more.

Another friend has offered to take the whole lot of us out on their boat, Vickie and my daughters–in—law have burned holes in the cell phone and text lines planning activities for the visit.

We are super excited! We just can’t wait.

And yet, in the back of our minds, we know: the dynamic of ten people in relatively small space for several days, with four of them ten and under could certainly lead to conflicts.

Vickie and I love our children and grandchildren with all of our hearts, souls and minds. And we are blessed to know that they love each other the same way.

We also both know there is no foolproof formula to insure that “a good time will be had by all,” but there are a couple of things we shall try to do to stack the odds in our favor:

  • As the Psalmist wrote: “Appoint, O Eternal One, a guard over my mouth.” (Psalm 141:3) We both know well that a sharp word that we carelessly allow to escape our lips can foul everyone’s mood. We will be vigilant.
  • Listen more than we talk. We have grown to love this island and its many opportunities to experience learning, beauty and fun. We have ideas on how to spend our time together, but our activities should be guided by our children’s preferences and their better knowledge than ours of what will be best for their children.

If Vickie and I allow nothing to veer us away from these two goals, then with a healthy dose of prayer and hope, we see the days ahead flying joyfully by at warp speed.

And when next Vickie and I are alone together, may we catch our breath, look at each other and say:

“We cannot wait until the children come again.

 

Sometimes I Get Angry at God  

Sometimes I get angry at God.

One of those times was when I read the biography of Dr. Daniel Sargent.

It was never my privilege to meet Dan, but his father Forrest and I play tennis together. The pain of losing Dan—and the worst emotional pain imaginable is the pain of losing a child–is forever engraved on his soul.

Dr. Sargent was a gifted scientist and Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He was doing vital cancer research, but he died at that age of 46.

In my anger I ask, “Why, God, did you allow this?”

Dr. Sargent was pushing back the curtain of human understanding in the search for a cure for cancer. He was the Ralph S. and Beverly E. Caulkins Professor of Cancer Research and the Chair of the Division of Biomedical Statistics and Informatics in the Department of Health Sciences Research at the Mayo Clinic.

His obituary on the web site of the American Society for Clinical Oncology further notes, “Dr. Sargent was the principal investigator for the statistics and data management program at the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology (ALLIANCE), a national clinical trials network sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. He led multiple international groups including ACCENT in adjuvant colon cancer, the prospective IDEA in colon cancer, and the FLASH international consortia in follicular lymphoma. He authored or co-authored more than 300 peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters, editorials, and letters.”

It is hard to believe that a man who accomplished so many great things only lived 46 years.

I could cite further accomplishments of Dr. Sargent’s brilliant career, but they would only make me angrier at God for taking away so young a person who did so much good.

Of course I am familiar with many theological theories. Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches in, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, there is a realm of nature that God does not and cannot control.

I must even consider the possibility that there is no God at all. I am well familiar with the claims that no good God could allow so many tragedies to happen.

As I ponder, “Why,” there are some things I will never say:

  • God needed Dr. Sargent in heaven.

What kind of a God could ever need Dan Sargent more than his wife and young children?

  • He is in a better place.

Again, what better place could there be for a man, who married and loved his high school sweetheart and had two wonderful children than with them?

Yes there are things I know never to say, but that still leaves me groping for an answer.

Ultimately, I retreat to what God said to Job out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who has given understanding to the mind …Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 38:4, 36; 40:8)

In other words, much about God is and always will be, a mystery.

As wise as humans will ever become, there is and always will be an infinite gap between what we can grasp and what God does or does not allow to happen.

That does not mean we have to like or accept these mysteries. We should continue to try to unravel them, but we must accept this reality: our efforts to fully understand the reasons bad things happen will always fall short.

Life is often unfair. It is OK to be angry at God. I believe God can handle our anger. But when we condemn God for what we do not understand, we become victims of our own arrogance.

Indeed, it is arrogant to say that if God does not conform to my moral standards of right and wrong, then either there is no God or God’s power is limited. It is only our understanding that is and will remain limited.

We should answer to God but not expect God to answer to us.

Despite all we shall never know, here are things we can say about God.

We have a good idea of how God wants us to act toward one another. It is clear that God wants us to use our vast power to make a better world on earth.

It is also clear that Dan Sargent used his vast talents in pursuit of that lofty goal.

Let the example of his life inspire us to do the same. That will be his enduring legacy!

What will our legacy be?

If we try to live our lives as Dr. Sargent did for however many days or years we have, then people will remember us as a blessing.

That, I believe is the highest reward life can offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?  

 

Many non-Jews think of Chanukah as, “What Jews do at Christmastime.”

Others know the story of “a little cruse of oil” that was supposed to last for one day, but “miraculously” lasted for eight.

In truth the cruse of oil story is as much the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah, as Santa Claus is the reason religious Christians celebrate Christmas.

The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it teaches all of us today.

Long ago in Judaea (about 168 BCE), the Syrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea. They were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea.

  • There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and way of life.
  • Another group of Jews thought it would be to their advantage if they acted more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

In order to accomplish their goal, this second group of Jew stopped practicing their religion. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business.

So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days, and the Sabbath, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

The tension between these two groups of Jews reached the point that a civil war erupted between them.

When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops and outlawed the Jewish religion and all Jewish practice. His forces polluted the Temple in Jerusalem with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Jewish forces, known as the Maccabees, fought against the Syrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. It was the first time in history people fought for religious liberty. And they won!

Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival commemorating that victory.

But religious freedom is a value we all should treasure and celebrate.