Friday, December 31, 2010

Does God really harden the heart of a person? Torah portion Va'era -Exodus

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.
Shabbat shalom

Thursday, December 30, 2010

President of Israel convicted of rape

The former president of the state of Israel is convicted of rape. Just to read that sentence causes me to take a deep breath and exhale. Sadly we are already inoculated from the moral shock of such events given what we in America have witnessed with politicians and their sexual exploits. I do not think I need to go into specifics on that issue. Needless to say we like to hold Israel up to a higher standard. We are so proud of Israelis when they achieve in science, business or the humanities. Then we see the President go down because of a violent crime like rape. The thought of it, nevertheless, strikes us as deeply disappointing. Why can’t the political leadership rise to the heights of excellence   as moral and political leaders just like their contemporaries in other fields of endeavor? Of course we have to be fair and ask that question of America’s national leaders as well. Isn’t Israel different?
One hopes that when a person takes on a position of leadership that they will rise to the level of the position. What do I mean? The reality is that when someone is promoted to an important high profile position there is an expectation of behavior that goes along with the job even if it is not specifically written down in a job description.  Moral integrity is an example of that standard that one would hope religious, business, or political leaders would aspire to beyond what they have already achieved in their lives. Maybe I am just na├»ve.
King David, beloved of Israel, conspired to send the husband of Bathsheba, a married woman who he had taken a fancy to, Uriah the Hittite, to the front lines of the battle with the Philistines. Knowing full well he would probably meet his fate in battle, David sent him so as to have Bathsheba to himself.  Nathan the Prophet knew about this and put it to him. Yes, David did ultimately confess his transgressions. And the first child they had together after the death of Uriah the Hittite ultimately died. They both paid a deep price of sorrow for their lust towards each other. And yet David went on to be the symbol of the ideal in Israelite culture and the exemplar for the Messiah. Go figure.
The Israelites wanted a king so that they could be like all the other nations. Samuel the great judge and prophet first resisted the crowd and advocated for religio-political leader like Moses or Joshua. But he succumbed to the people and first anointed Saul. Israel has always wanted to be different and unique from the rest of the world. We want so badly to fit into the cultures of the world. Is President Katzav an example of what it feels like fitting into the world?
 I hope not. ‘Democracy has triumphed,’ say Israeli prosecutors. Maybe they are correct. But the stain on the office of President of Israel, following in the footsteps of Haim Weitzman, Chaim Hertzog, Yitzhak Navon , will not go away easily and risks eroding public confidence in the nation’s political culture. Now we can have a prayer for the government which would be for God to guide Israel and America’s leaders to conduct their lives with the same faith and loyalty to the values of Torah that the people are asked to abide by in their daily lives.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Exodus: Paranoia against the Jews begins> The Jewish conspiracy.

Sadly, one could not have asked for better timing with this week’s Torah portion and the hateful remarks against the Jewish people on Greek national television from Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim to learn how history repeats itself from its biblical roots to today. From the moment that Pharaoh declared the Jewish people in Egypt a dangerous threat to national security to the political and religious leaders throughout history leading up to the most recent example of a Greek Orthodox Bishop railing against Israel and the international Zionist conspiracy as the cause for the collapse of the Greek economy. It is the same old song of hatred and how disappointing that a prominent Greek Orthodox Bishop would say these things as well as hold Jews responsible for promoting single parent families and homosexuality.
Talking about demonizing Jews, the people who listened to Pharaoh revered him as a God-like person.  In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh warned of the growing numbers of Jews in Egypt and the potential threat they posed to Egypt and how it was incumbent upon Pharaoh to devise a plan to contain them. This was the first time in Jewish history that we see a leader speaking of the Jewish conspiracy as a national threat  We could not know what the Egyptians thought about Pharaoh’s warnings. Were they convinced on Pharaoh’s say so alone? Similarly, the Greek public may not have been swayed by the Bishop’s unrestrained hate speech, but, do not think for a minute that many citizens heard him and privately shook their heads in the affirmative.
Why is this moment in Israelite history significant for us today? The answer is that this passage became a precursor to a history of anti-Jewish leaders portraying us as the danger or the problem people. It is also important to recognize that from this historic experience we must be proactive in responding with our narrative when we see hate mongering and not fall prey to this kind of demonizing of other peoples. So tonight I want to explore the origin of this myth in the Torah and how one medieval commentator responded to it. Finally I will discuss the current events of how hate speech challenges us to respond and use wisdom in doing do so.
 Pharaoh said in Exodus 1:9-10, “Look, the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us.”
“Come; let us deal shrewdly with them
Lest they increase
And if war breaks out they will join our enemies,
And fight against us and leave the country.”
This is the first moment in Jewish history where we see the birth of the myth “the Jewish Problem.” We became the “Jewish Problem” people forever more and we still hear it in the words of Bishop Piraeus Seraphim. Let us tonight briefly review Jewish viewpoints throughout history. How does this verse play out in our consciousness today?

We see in this passage that Pharaoh was convinced that the growth of the Jewish people was potentially a real problem to Egypt’s national security. The text, at this point in the book of Exodus, does not tell us why this is so nor what he plans to do about it. Did he think about enslaving them or committing an act of extermination? We do not yet know the answer to these questions.
There is a difference of opinion in translation on an issue that relates to the intention of Pharaoh. In the phrase “the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us,” there is a disagreement between Jewish and Christian translations. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate translations they translate the phrase mi menu as connoting “more than”. In other words these translations imply that Pharaoh believed that there were more Israelites than Egyptians. Jewish translations, on the other hand, from Mendelssohn, Hirsch, Buber-Rosenzweig translated it as they are too many and too powerful for us.” The Hebrew letter mem from me menu meaning “more than us” is one of relativeness. In other words Pharaoh is saying that the Israelites are getting too much for us to contend with. Does that mean politically, economically? We do not know the answer.
So then why does the Torah says in Pharaoh’s words, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.” Why would Pharaoh feel so threatened? Surely he could have wiped them off the map of the earth? One commentator Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 15th century Spain, believed that would be treason to smite all the Israelites without cause. He knew this was a people that had come to the land at the bidding of his royal predecessor.  He could not reverse such a decree from his father. Pharaoh had to come up with a reason that he implemented through policy and not genocide. The second reason was that his subjects might not agree with expulsion or extermination. Finally, Pharaoh was concerned that the Israelites would resist and fight against him.
Nahmanides sees that the policy of levying harsh taxes against the Israelites foreigners not of money but of forced labor was the first stage in Pharaoh’s grand plan. That is the beginning of slavery. Then the policy of forcing midwives to turn over the Israelite first- born. When the midwives rebelled, and then came the final solution by Pharaoh which was to command all his people to kill every male child. Ramban’s view is that Pharaoh used a camouflaged policy of increasingly repressive and deceptive policies so as to make it look like he was using legitimate force to deal with this problem people. That is how Nachmanides understands the set up and strategy of Pharaoh coming out of the verse, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”
The shrewd one is Pharaoh because he knows he cannot compromise his reputation and authority as the God-like leader of Egypt by simply murdering everyone. He must utilize the legitimacy of his unchallenged role to portray himself not as the aggressor but as the defender of Egypt. That is the political language of framing the enemy as the demon people. That kind of thinking canonized the strategy that so many kingdoms and religions would adapt in their demonizing Jews over history.
The myth of the Jewish conspiracy was born then. It has followed us since ancient times. Besides the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion text in modern times, Hitler used the same strategy with the Nuremburg Laws before he sent us to the concentration camps. He was ridding Germany of this dangerous people who threatened to pollute German racial purity.  But first he had to establish why doing so was in the national interest just like Pharaoh.
The really tragic aspect of this is when we read accounts of how Jews believed that a ruler would never expel us because we were so critical to the welfare of the state. Did the Jews in Spain think that way? We know that the Jews in modern German thought that they were so valuable to the German economy and country that Hitler would eventually get over his obsession with the Jews. We know how that situation worked out.

So that is why whenever we hear the same kinds of words portraying the perennial Jewish conspiracy mythos today, especially when it comes from a high ranking cleric, we would be wise to take it seriously. Bishop Seraphim is not Pharaoh. But he counts in the continuum of history’s anti-Semites with the same old obsessive fear and hatred that betrays the very foundation of faith and teaching that his Christian calling is supposed to model to his people and to the world. Certainly he brings shame to the Christian faith and to the culture of Christendom as a whole. And how sad as well as ironic is the timing of the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s remarks during the week leading up to Christmas.
I cannot help but mention that the recent decision of some municipal rabbis in Israel to issue an edict not to rent property to non-Jews is equally mean spirited. Condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister and many other prominent leaders, this kind of policy demonizes the Arab Israeli population which lives side by side with Jewish Israelis. It is another example of how we too are vulnerable to the same fears that underlie and promote policies of intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum-even the good guys.
If there is one lesson to be learned it is that we have to be swift to expose hate speech and policies that run against our own values. Second, we must be proactive in communicating our narrative to the public because we all know that there is a growing constituency out there in America and around the world who work hard at providing a completely different and false narrative about Israel’s existence and its role in the world. Finally, let’s not forget that our values and our history define us and no one else.