Divine justice — Parashat Vaera

Divine justice — Parashat Vaera

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

The violence we have witnessed in our nation’s capital is all too familiar to our Jewish narrative. The destruction, the calculated nature of the attack, the threat to our democracy, and the unnecessary loss of life all capture the epitome of evil agendas at all costs. We Jews know about the shattering of glass in sacred buildings, but did we ever think it would happen here in America in this way?

The undeniable display of Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia as part of this act of terrorism not only accentuates the white supremacist agenda to the rest of the world but should be a haunting wake-up call to our Jewish people that justice must be pursued immediately.

Our people have long been under siege. Even in this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we read about the evil Pharaoh and how he prevented the Israelites from freely worshipping God. The Torah says that Pharaoh “hardened his heart.” Because of the king’s disregard for humanity, horrific plagues descended upon Egypt, including blood, frogs, and lice, to name just a few. After each plague, Pharaoh seems unphased, becomes “stubborn,” even after making empty promises regarding freedom. Pharaoh literally abandons the safety of his own people, while retreating to the comfort of his palace.

Who is to blame here, and how should justice be meted out?

You might blame Pharaoh. After all, he hardened his own heart. Further, if we paid attention even a little bit in yeshiva or Hebrew school, we remember Pharaoh as the bad guy. But a close reader of the text knows that the Torah also says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This, of course, triggers commentators to ask how we possibly can hold Pharaoh liable for this sin when God may have been part of problem.

We, too, often resort to blaming God when tragedy strikes. Here we are, in the peak of a fatal pandemic, which has impacted millions of people, disrupted our economy, and shaken our sense of security. As if that were not enough, we witness insurrection upon our country, which included gallows put up and tragic fatalities occurring right in the front of the Capitol. It is completely understandable why we might throw our hands up to God and say, “seriously, Hashem?”

Some commentaries (e.g., Exodus Rabbah and Rambam) claim that Pharaoh was given plenty of chances to repent of his evil ways and change his behavior, but when he is unsuccessful at doing so, only then does God harden Pharaoh’s heart. God’s hardening of his heart removes any opportunity for Pharaoh to engage in true teshuvah, repentance. According to Erich Fromm, “Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil. It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible… The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes … until there is no longer any freedom of choice left him.”

In other words, God’s hardening of Pharoah’s heart is not the instigation. God is not creating the problem. Rather, this is God’s punishment for Pharaoh’s crime. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart as a form of justice, so that Pharaoh becomes stuck and is no longer able to move forward because of his deeply evil ways of his past leadership.

Last week, when we began the book of Exodus, it was clear that Pharaoh felt under threat. As a result, he became shrewd with the Israelites and imposed forced labor upon them.

There are those leaders who deal with threats by inciting violence or causing harm to others. It lifts them up to put other people down or even provoke their demise. And there are those leaders who deal with threats by using them as opportunities for personal and national growth.

God understands that leaders make mistakes. We all do. However, God wants a leader who, when given multiple chances to repent from those mistakes, can turn around from his evil ways and change for the betterment of the people he serves.

When that is not possible, God metes out justice, which includes stunted leadership capacity, an inability to move forward with the same consequential influence.

May we, Americans, be like God and pursue justice as if our lives depend on it. They do.

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