Parshat Va’era, Jan. 9, 2016

My grandson, Joshua, has recently been occupied with writing his university application essays.  Josh is not only a brilliant, gifted student, he is also a good-natured fellow who extends himself to everyone. As part of a national high school debating society, he has been active in mock debates, in which he excels in debating different points of view and generally sharing his knowledge with his peers. However, in his college applications, perhaps he took his natural good will a little too far. He ended his essays by wishing good luck to his fellow applicants and expressed the hope that they would all get places in these very competitive colleges. You see, Joshua is a mensch.

“Josh,” I said to my grandson, the mensch, ”This is not a “shake your hand and may the best fellow win” situation. You are competing for a place in one of the top universities in this country. And you have to be very, very good  — better than most — to be considered.”

Then I thought better of what I was saying. What a shame it is that we teach our young people to work in teams, to share their knowledge with one another – especially in the Jewish world where we ideally study in pairs, chevruta —  and in general, we teach our youngsters that cooperative behavior is best. But then when they get out into the world, they find that competitive behavior is the rule whether they undertake studies, business activities, or a profession. So while humility, modesty is indeed a Jewish value – indeed, all our lives we try to find a balance between humility and ego –but being humble on your college

So what does all this have to do with our Torah portion today, Va-era (Exodus 6:1- 9:35)? When God asks Moses to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses reacts very modestly, very humbly indeed, maybe too humbly according to Rabbi Beth Kalisch in her recent article, “How Humble Is Too Humble?” (Union of Reform Judaism, “Shemot,” Jan. 2, 2016). Moses does not feel worthy of the task – and he makes excuses. Even the Israelites don’t listen to him, so how will Pharaoh? He has a speech impediment, he says – “See, I am of impeded speech,; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:30) Most likely he stammers.  Maybe he is fearful. In any case, he clearly does not feel that he’s the best choice as a communicator.

So God directs his brother Aaron, who by contrast has the gift of a more fluent tongue, to help Moses communicate God’s message to the unfeeling, powerful ruler of Egypt. Moses will represent God’s word, and Aaron will be his prophet. For the rest of the text of Va’era, God addresses both Moses and Aaron, and they carry out his will together. It’s probably a very good idea, because Moses is already 80 years old at this time of crisis, and Aaron is 83.

Yes, we are being taught a lesson here: People do have to help one another in order to accomplish a goal, to work together for best effect, at any age. We all have different talents, and where one person may be lacking, someone else can compensate. Va-era is a wonderful demonstration of team leadership. And while humility, as I learned in my very first year of rabbinic school is definitely a valuable attribute, somehow we have to find the strength to carry out the task demanded of us.

During World War II, I was only a little girl. Yet I remember that “Keep calm and carry-on” was the British watchword during the blitz.  No matter what the circumstances, people were exhorted to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with the job.

In effect, I think this is what Rabbi Kalisch is saying  — this is what we all have to do in difficult times: we have to steel ourselves and find resources within ourselves that we didn’t know we had, and get the job done and, in the case of this parsha, Va-iera, and for Jews generally, in God’s service.

The difficulty with getting on with the job is also remembering to be a mensch. If only Pharaoh had agreed to be a mensch and release the Jewish slaves, he would not have been subjected to the sequential divine afflictions that God heaped upon Pharaoh and his people. But strangely, according to the English translation of the text, God deliberately did not allow Pharaoh to be a mensch. God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

In fact, what has troubled many commentators about this sequence is why God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Then, in Bo, the next parsha, God tells Moses that indeed he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. A done deal. Why? we ask. Is it so that God can show that he is much stronger than Pharaoh, who also believes himself divine, that God is stronger that any magicians the pagan Pharaoh can muster. So does God really harden Pharaoh’s heart to put on a demonstration of God’s far greater powers, to show that God is supreme? Apparently so. As God explains in the text: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (Exodus 7:3-6).

Various contemporary rabbis have offered explanations of why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, for example, likes to apply the lessons of the Torah to our own selves, to our own inner consciousness. We all have an inner Pharaoh, he teaches, and for our consciousness to ascend, we first have to taste the bitterness of the depths. According to this view, Pharaoh’s consciousness was blocked, so it was the Divine will for Pharaoh to taste the bitterness of his deep grief before he could rise to be become a better human being, for his consciousness to be liberated.  This, of course, is a psycho-spiritual way of interpreting the parsha, one favored by Aviva Zornberg.

And over the years, there has been a good deal of creative controversy over the years about the true meaning of the word “hardens” as it concerns Pharaoh’s heart. Some commentators think that “harden” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew text, that there are more subtle nuances. For example, [as Rabbi Charles Briskin explains] in his book The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that “three different[Hebrew] verbs are used in the story…Hisquah, ‘to harden’, hizeq, ‘to toughen,’…and kaved, literally ‘to be heavy’…. The force of all three idioms is to be stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible” (NY: W.W. Norton and Company), 2004, 345.

Personally, I really like Rabbi J.B. Sack’s interpretation of the word “harden,” based on the root of kaved (k-v-d). (“Weighting One’s Heart,” AJRCA website, 2013). A better translation than “harden”, Sacks says, would be “weight.” God weights Pharaoh’s heart, makes it heavy, so that he can feel the enormity of the plagues inflicted on his people. When we are heavy-hearted, we feel pain, we are sad, we grieve. Only when Pharaoh’s own son is killed, does he feel the pain of personal loss, and understands what his own decrees have inflicted on others.

Of course, Pharaoh never had to write college application essays. He came to his ruling position by inheritance, by royal privilege, and he had total authority. He never had to think about whether the best man should ideally win. But finally he too had to come to grips with God’s superior power. In the life and death instance Pharaoh’s decrees represented, God could not be modest. He had to show the strength of his divine power to the max.  Sadly, there are times when we must fight to win.

Only when his own son was a casualty of this divine intervention, did Pharaoh finally release his iron grip, at least temporarily, on the Hebrews slaves. At least temporarily, he became a mensch. And when the Hebrew slaves led by Moses and Aaron left Egypt as free people, our great Jewish liberation theology — the wonderful values that my grandson espouses, the freeing of our collective consciousness to become, not slaves, but the best people we can be – those values came into being.