Thursday, January 3, 2008

Parashas Va’era

One of the questions dealt with by most of the commentaries pertains to the meaning of hachbadas ha-lev - the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. To what extent did Pharaoh lose his bechirah chofshis - free will? If he was compelled to act as he did, how could he be punished for refusing to agree to Moshe’s request? Furthermore, what purpose was there in continuing to meet with him and present this request if it was clear and pre-ordained that he would refuse them? Granted that Pharaoh and the Egyptians deserved a special measure of punishment for having overdone the role in serving as the forge through which am Yisrael needed to pass and be purified before beginning their manifest destiny. Understood that the ruler and his people were to serve as the stage for the performance of a set of miracles that would forever impress humanity with G-d’s power and His intervention in history. Nonetheless, why were Moshe and Aharon called to keep on entering into a dialogue that led nowhere? Could they have not just showed up at the royal palace and held a press conference announcing the plague that was about to occur?

Rav Hirsch [especially developed in his commentary to the Pesach haggadah, Nachalat ha-Sar], sees each makah - plague - as one in a series of sets of three designed to uproot Pharaoh’s [and by extension humanity’s] overblown self-confidence and self-reliance. This is alluded to by the inscription on Moshe’s staff of detzach adash b’achav - the acronyms for the plagues. While this may help us understand the necessity of each one of the set which teaches us a different lesson, why the repetition?

Rambam [Hilchos Teshuvah 6:3] seems to suggest that the episode with Pharaoh was meant to teach humanity a critical lesson; man can reach a point through his sins where teshuvah is no longer a possibility. Pharaoh was the vehicle used to deliver this message and thus Hashem hardened his heart and removed his free will to preclude his agreeing to Moshe’s request. Many of the late rishonim seem to object to this view.

Abarbanel writes that it is impossible to conceive that man could reach a point from which there is no return. The essence of the Divine relationship with man is lo echpotz b’mos ha-mes ki im b’shuvo medarko vechayah - I [Hashem] do not desire that the dead [i.e., the sinner] shall die, rather that he return from his path [i.e., teshuvah] and thereby live. However, teshuvah does not necessarily preclude punishment. If a person steals, he must still compensate his victim and not simply rely upon the fact that he has changed his path. By hardening his heart, Abarbanel concludes, Hashem enabled Pharaoh and his people to suffer the punishments that they needed to achieve atonement.

Perhaps there is a somewhat different approach based on an idea that I saw in the Sefer ha-Ikkarim of R. Yosef Albo. When a person does teshuvah after suffering or being punished, there are two reasons why he might have repented; he may seek a means of relieving himself from that suffering and seek to avoid its continuance through teshuvah or he may have seen the correlation between the sin and his suffering and concluded that he needs to repent. Both paths of teshuvah seem to be motivated by his desire to end the suffering, but the former lacks the intellectual acceptance that is at the heart of the latter and that is ultimately an integral part of true teshuvah.

G-d punishes man through midah k’neged midah to demonstrate to man that what happens to him is directly connected to what he does. Moreover, Divine punishment [see what is said to Kayin and to Noach] is portrayed as being ba’avur ha-adam - on behalf of man, rather than being b’glal ha-adam - because of man; i.e., it is meant to bring man to an elevated level of Divine consciousness and is not a reaction to what man has done.

When Moshe and Aharon were first told to go to Pharaoh, they were warned that he would not agree to their request. However, they knew that it was not unlikely that as each makah struck Egypt, he would change his mind about listening to them, not because he accepted G-d’s demand that he do so, but out of fear of what was about to transpire. How oblivious can anyone be to what even the royal magicians saw as being G-d's hand. But G-d hardened Pharoah's, allowing Pharaoh to overcome his fear so that his natural disinclination to allow the Jews to leave Egypt would persist for as long as possible. Moshe and Aharon are commanded to continue their dialogue with Pharaoh to demonstrate that is being given the chance to repent but stubbornly refuses to do so. And Pharaoh is punished because he should have overcome his natural stubborness, for he still maintained his free will.

Ultimately, when we discipline our students or children, we are confronted with the a dilemma. Are they truly remorseful or are they simply trying to avoid further punishment? It takes a great deal of s’yatta dishmaya to be certain, a great deal of wisdom to be able to discern if they got the message. We can only be comforted by the fact that their hearts are hopefully not being hardened by external factors.

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