Hard-Hearted Pharaoh

High on my list of Passover FAQs:

a) Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

b) Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and facilitate the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Undoubtedly, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a conundrum. In the text, traditional Jewish commentators point out early discourses between Moses and Pharaoh that state, “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.” (E.g. Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text evolves into, “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 in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz parallels the unchecked acts of evil that Pharaoh committed, to those of Macbeth. At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong. He certainly fears to lay hands on his King, Duncan. With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience becomes a whisper, and ultimately relinquishes control over Macbeth’s treacherous impulses.

When in Act III, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her hesitant husband to kill the King, voices her reservations concerning Macbeth’s reign of terror, Macbeth responds: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 55). In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own; Macbeth can no longer control himself.

So it was, with Pharaoh.

Rabbi Akiba (second century C.E.) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in

Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way:

“At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and at last it is like a rope of a ship.”

(Genesis Rabbah 22:6).

Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said:

“The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day.

It seeks to kill him.   If God did not help, a person could not overcome it.”

(B. Kiddushin 30 b).

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to repress the inclination to do evil. God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort.

In other words, only through diligent effort and appeal to God for help, can humans overcome the inclination to do wrong. When we persist in evil, when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than us. Those uncomfortable with such direct references to the Almighty, but who still seek guidance from traditional texts, might choose to substitute, “appeal to the voice of our conscience” for “enlist God’s help.”

In Pirke Avoth (3:19) we find one of Jewish thought’s most enigmatic teachings: “All is foreseen. Yet free will is given.” As the rabbis understood God, the Almighty knows exactly what will happen. At the same time, the rabbis uphold the ability of human beings to make moral choices of their own volition. So, for the Rabbis, the fact that God announces that the Almighty would harden Pharaoh’s heart (first in Exodus 4:21 and again in 7:3) does not mean that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s evil. The point is that Pharaoh was in no way receptive to God’s guidance.

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. God allowed Pharaoh to continue on his chosen course. God allows all of us to do the same. Although most of us, at times, have wished that God would step in and change people, but such action would rob us of the free will that gives life meaning.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

 

One More Look at Elijah Before Passover

 

Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?

Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE.  But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.

It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One.  He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world.  With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us.  One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!

By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:

  1. The end of the oppression of the Jews
  2. A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
  3. The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
  4. The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity

People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah.  The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.

As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work.  Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago.  Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.

When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.”  Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

Six Women Made Passover Possible

Passover will soon be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. Without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb. The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.

Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off!

Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life.

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses.   For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).

The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah’s Role on Yom Kippur

It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar— with the triumphant cry from the  passage (First Kings, Chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel:  “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim!  The Eternal One  alone  is God!”  We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the only time  we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.

Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial.   King Ahab and even more so, Queen Jezebel (whose name is synonymous with wickedness) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice.  They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true God.  

So, Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al on Mt Carmel.  He says we will each prepare our offering, and the god who consumes the offering without having kindled a fire is the true deity.  The prophets of Ba’al go first, and though they cry out and gash themselves, nothing happens. Elijah then pours water over his offering, so much water that it fills the trench around the makeshift altar and cries, “Answer me O Eternal One, Answer me!”

POOF!  The offering, the altar beneath it and even the trench filled with water go up in smoke.

Who is God? Elijah essentially asks?  Is it your idol that you worship by gashing yourselves and with other abominations that make a mockery of human dignity? Is it Ba’al who you hope will greedily eat your offering?  Or is it the one true God who wants us to create a world of justice, kindness, caring and compassion?

And then, in a most dramatic fashion, God vanquishes Ba’al on Mt Carmel and all must acknowledge God’s sovereignty.  It is a replay in miniature of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt where God defeats Pharaoh, the pagan god in human form.

So what should Jews take away from what is arguably the holiest moment of the year?  What should we all learn from this passage that can help us to live more meaningfully?

Even though many in power debase the ideals and values that the Almighty wants us to uphold — and even though God does not assert the reality of the Divine presence as dramatically to us as we see on Mt. Carmel (or in the parting of the sea) — it is our job to hold fast to God’s desires for us.  True worship is not found in mouthing empty words, but in making our faith the driving force in our lives.  We glorify God and demonstrate our faith when we use our talents — whatever they may be — to help repair this broken world.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

Kertoon.com

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching, my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder in hopes that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories than there are stories about Moses, and even Solomon. This is due in part to the prophet Malachi, who  transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian C. figure to the one who would  announce the coming of the Messiah and the end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah, an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

Ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and lows that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty, yet—like many who selflessly give of themselves—he has fallen into a funk of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught.

And worse, the wicked Jezebel has put a price on his head.

God tries to encourage Elijah, and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses,  Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There, he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours, alone.

As profound and wonderful as it was, not even God’s voice could lift the cloud of despair from Elijah. Thus, the time has come for him  relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel —despite his desire to do so—into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah, we must all some day let go of the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty, like Moses and Elijah, can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.