Parashat Va’era: The heart of the matter

Parashat Va’era: The heart of the matter

Logical inconsistencies are grist for the mill of Torah study. In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, we find ourselves at the heart of the story of the exodus, the ten plagues that God sent upon Egypt. As the portion progresses the drama grows as Moses brings God’s notice of yet another plague that is about to come: the Nile turned to blood, frogs, swarms of insects, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail. These first seven of the ten plagues are found in Parashat Va’era. Each time God sends another plague Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he refuses to let the Children of Israel go.

“Hold on a minute!” the careful student of Torah might say. “After the first five plagues the Torah text says that Pharaoh hardened his heart. But, when we get to the sixth plague, boils, it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That phrase is used repeatedly over the last several plagues – ‘The Eternal hardened Pharaoh’s heart.’ Why the change in wording? More importantly, doesn’t Pharaoh, like all people, have free will? Isn’t that a basic principle of Judaism? And, furthermore, if God does harden Pharaoh’s heart so he refuses to let the Israelites go doesn’t that mean that Pharaoh wasn’t responsible for his actions? Why then would God seek to punish him with more plagues? It just doesn’t make sense!”

True. But, it is just such logical inconsistencies that lead our Sages of Blessed Memory to some great insights. In the Midrash, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai voices his deep concern that heretics could point to this passage and say that Pharaoh was not given the opportunity to repent, that God was unjust. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish replies, “When God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance…. God sent five times to him and he took no notice….” (Exodus Rabba 13:3)

Erich Fromm, a learned Jew as well as a great psychologist, takes this point and puts it in more familiar psychological language for us: “What the biblical text stresses here is one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden a man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens the less freedom does he have to change; the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when a man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end…. (You Shall Be As Gods, p. 101).

While we do have free will, thought processes and behavior patterns become more ingrained and harder to change the more we repeat them. Eventually, it is almost as if we are no longer able to control ourselves. “At first sin is like a spider’s web,” the midrash teaches, “but in time it becomes like a ship’s cable.” (Genesis Rabba 22:6) We are familiar with this type of behavior pattern, for example, when we talk about the various addictions that plague us as human beings. We can break these patterns of behavior but the longer they last the more difficult it is to do.

At the same time we can take this teaching and turn it in a positive direction. Just as repeated negative behaviors can become ingrained, so too can repeated positive behaviors. For example, in discussing the mitzvah of “tzar baalei chayim,” concern for the suffering of animals, Sefer Hachinuch points out that one of the reasons to practice kindness to animals is that it will lead one to be kind to human beings. It is as important to habituate ourselves and our children to doing deeds of kindness as it is to warn against misconduct. In synagogue life we often bemoan the fact that the “same people” end up doing the volunteer work that keeps the community going, while helping others outside the community as well. But, it’s no accident. It’s the pattern of goodness that they have inculcated in themselves. “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah,” – one mitzvah leads to another – just as “averah goreret averah” – one sin leads to another (Pirke Avot 4:2).

As we come to our secular New Year and think about making “New Year’s resolutions” – it doesn’t have to be our Jewish New Year for us to do teshuvah! – let us not just think about the bad habits we want to break. As with Pharaoh in days of old, bad habits are hard to break. Instead, focus on doing a few good deeds. You never know, perhaps you’ll end up making a habit of it!