Two parties are engaged in a conflict and then one of them escalates the issue into a personal battle knowing full well that others will suffer due to their unrestrained bitterness. Has that person acted of their own free will? The individual made the choice and consequently tripped the wire from reasoned debate to a lashing out of emotions. The point is that one made the decision to behave in this way and therefore bears responsibility for the way their behavior impacted the resolution of the situation.
What does one do when a person says,’ I was justified acting out this way because I am right and even God is on my side?’ We might conclude that this person had mental health issues. Sometimes we can watch the body itself react to the emotions. We could make the argument that such bravado severely diminished their credibility, to say the least.
In this week’s Parasha Va’era we have a situation where we see the temper of Pharaoh growing increasingly belligerent towards Moses and the idea of freeing the Israelite slaves. The Torah uses polite language by saying that Pharaoh in verse 13, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” This was the response after the plague of blood running in the Nile River. In verse 22, it is written; “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen.” That was after the plague of the frogs. After the plague of lice when there seemed to be a respite, the Torah says, “But when Pharaoh saw there was respite, he hardened his heart.” Each time there was a plague the Torah carefully says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
Only after the 6th plague which was boils do we see a change in the language of the Torah. Here the Torah says, “And the Eternal One hardened the heart of Pharaoh for he did not listen as the Eternal One had said to Moses.” This refers to chapter seven when God says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” From that point on the Torah provides us with several statements saying that God and not Pharaoh will harden the heart of Pharaoh.
So what is the problem? Is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart due to the intervention of God or was it due to Pharaoh’s own will? This question invokes the theological and the ethical dimensions which deal with whether Pharaoh is utilizing his free will or whether he is a victim of a divine plan. And this issue raises for us an even larger issue than just free will versus divine intervention. The idea of hardening one’s heart is about an issue of really knowing and owning the emotions we carry into a conflict situation. At the end of the day the sages teach that God’s presence can lead a willing soul to repentance. A person who refuses to return to that behavior, however, cannot count upon God to be there. When we find ourselves in the midst of a conflict that ignites or triggers our most combustible emotions, God is not the one who is going to stop the momentum of anger.
The sages wondered if Pharaoh was succumbing to Divine intervention or responding to his own emotions before the stiff-necked Israelite people and Moses’ chutzpah in challenging the God-like Pharaoh. Let’s see what some of our sources say about this matter and how it relates to us in the way we hold ourselves accountable in conflict situations.
The rabbis were sensitive to the potential theological issue between Pharaoh’s responsibility for the unresolved conflict and how God may be accused as partly culpable. In our Midrash one of our sages R. Yochanan said, “The idea that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart might provide an opening to the heretics against Judaism saying, “Pharaoh was not allowed by God to repent.” Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 15th century asks; “If the Eternal One hardened his heart, then what was Pharaoh’s crime?”
Most commentators struggled with the dilemma of free will versus self determination. Many tried to argue that the Torah never tried to interfere with Pharaoh mending his ways. They argued that the Torah used this kind of language to describe Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. I’m not sure that approach really worked then or today.
Some of the medieval Jewish philosophers like Isaac Albo and Sforno interpret the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh to fortify his and Egypt’s endurance to bear the suffering due to the plagues. It was never about freewill. Moses Maimonides, the great scholar of the 12th century said, that there are times when a person’s sin is so grave that he or she is penalized by not being granted the opportunity to turn from his or her wickedness, so that he or she dies with the sin that he committed. In other words they sinned of their own free will until they forfeited of the opportunity to repent. Maimonides’ view was that God did not force Pharaoh to do evil to Israel or to commit iniquities in his land, or the Canaanite tribes to adopt abominable cultic practices or even Israel to serve idols. All of them sinned at their own promptings, forfeiting their right to repentance.
What Maimonides wanted to say was that there is a mutuality of relationship between humans and God. God did not force Pharaoh to choose evil. That decision rests upon the conscience of Pharaoh. Once he persisted on this course of action in defying Moses despite the overwhelming proof of God’s power , Pharaoh became obsessed and unable to rethink his position or control his emotion of unbridled anger.
The Talmud states this beautifully, “ Resh Lakish explained the meaning of the verse in Proverbs (3:34) “if to scorners he wills scorn, but to the meek, he will show favor.” The rabbis taught “If a person tries to defile themselves, he or she is given an opening; if he or she tries to purify themselves, he or she is helped from above.” In other words God will go with the flow of the person’s temperament. Note the difference between the rabbis saying that for the evil action God will give that person an opening to continue their behavior whereas for the good person God will help that individual do good.
Judaism’s response is that at the end of the day we choose whether we soften or harden our hearts. God will be part of that moral and emotional upheaval in either direction. But the positive help God gives us to do good is not the same as recognizing God’s passive assistance given in the form of removing the obstacles in our path should we choose evil.
And that is how the rabbis resolved a potentially vexing theological problem when thinking about how the language of Torah might give the bad impression that God would actually help Pharaoh resist the Israelites. Yet we need to take this issue to a personal level and relate it to our lives.
There are times when we get involved in issues when the stakes are high or even the opposite when the stakes in an argument are so low that we find ourselves binging on our emotions. The emotions control us and direct our response. We have lost perspective. And there develops a downward spiraling of emotions that distances us from the thoughtful way of conflict resolution.
We know this happens and its impact in the political arena, in business, in the professions, academia and the list goes on. Even in our personal lives can we recall an issue that grabbed us so personally that we allowed our deepest fears and anxieties to control our responses? Maybe that is what happened to Pharaoh? When that happens, we become unaware how we sometimes unconsciously put our own interests ahead of everyone else. We make decisions in the process that we delude ourselves into believing are for the greater good but not really. Some call this narcissistic behavior. What is truly at stake? Is it all in the end about human pride? Pride is the source of building integrity and it can be, when abused, the poison that leads us astray. Not even god can turn a person away from the intoxication of pride when it controls our every move.
What makes this issue as timeless and timely is because it is a universal issue. The secular New Year is in front of us and we should not lose the opportunity to review how we ourselves cope under stress with our emotions. Some of us can do so and others have serious problems with anger and keeping focused on the real issue in a conflict versus allowing ourselves to become obsessed with pride or ego. That is always an important lesson for this year or any year.
May this year teach us that the presence of God will be there to help us mediate our desire to return in repentance. Let us not forget the lessons of Pharaoh that to harden our heart is our choice. Refuse a way out of that spiral of hatred and be prepared for self destruction. That is not what we were put on this planet to achieve with our lives.