Shabbat candles: 4:34 p.m.
Torah reading: Exodus 6:2-9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
How could Pharaoh be punished with the plagues if his heart was “hardened,” or “strengthened,” by God, restricting Pharaoh’s free will? The question can be answered if we examine certain concepts about Heavenly punishment. Punishment is not so much retribution but a cleansing, removing any stains and damage from a person’s soul. The Ten Plagues were meant to cleanse the Egyptians from their collective actions against the Israelites.
The Izbitzer, in “Mei Shiloah,” links the sins and the plagues. The plague of blood was to rectify the Egyptians’ hatred. The Izbitzer, cites The Book of Proverbs, where “causing discord among brothers,” or expressions of anger and hatred, is seen as leading to the spilling of blood. The Izbitzer stresses that hatred is what keeps one farthest from God.
Among the other sinful characteristics mentioned in Proverbs that were tied by the Izbitzer to the plagues are: “a false witness” (corresponding to frogs puffing themselves up); “legs hastening to do evil” (corresponding to lice, small but rapid); and “a heart which devises evil imaginations” (corresponding to wild beasts).
Part of the social glue of Egyptian society was its obsession with status; at the lowest rung were the Israelites, at the very top was Pharaoh, worshipped as a god. Pharaoh’s sense of self-importance, and his cult, was not shaken until the drowning at the Red Sea. Contrast Pharaoh with Moses, described by Torah as the most humble person, and the most faithful servant of God. When God tells Moses to inform Pharaoh that He will slay the Egyptian first-born “at about midnight,” Rashi asks, couldn’t God have done so at precisely midnight? Of course He could, and it was exactly at midnight that it did occur. But God did not want to give the Egyptians the opportunity to claim that the deaths did not happen exactly at midnight, and so God did not fulfill His promise. God expected the Egyptians would miscalculate and misrepresent the time, revealing a pettiness and contempt that touched the roots of their souls — and, with Pharaoh, touching the heights of Egyptian society.
This contempt was so deep inside Pharaoh and his countrymen that they still didn’t quite “get it” after the Ten Plagues. They still needed one more miracle and punishment — the opening of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army — to cleanse them to the point that they could acknowledge that it is God who controls nature and is defending the Israelites. This was one reason why Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened” during the plagues. Pharaoh could have been forced to let the Israelites go after the earlier plagues but he would have deluded himself into thinking that it was he who controlled the situation. Pharaoh had yet to realize what Moses knew, that it is God who ruled the world not him.
There is a Midrash that Pharaoh didn’t die at the Red Sea but that God allowed him to become the king of Assyria. When Jonah gave his prophecy that Nineveh, the Assyrian city, would be destroyed, it was the Assyrian king (Pharaoh?) who gets the Assyrians to repent, averting the decree. As per the saying, “God sends the cure before he sends the disease,” another Assyrian king might not have believed Jonah’s warning. Pharaoh’s experience, however, was that God does withhold punishment; whenever Pharaoh said the Israelites could leave, the plague would cease. Perhaps God wanted a king over Assyria whose experience could induce his people’s repentance.
This week’s sedra, Va’eira, and next week’s sedra, Bo, are always read just before Tu b’Shvat, the time when the trees in the Land of Israel begin to blossom. These weeks are an appropriate time to read of our leaving Egypt, for that was the blossoming of our spirituality’s potential. In the story of the Exodus, of which this week’s sedra is one part, God raises us from nothing to the heights, and for that he deserves our never-ending praise and allegiance, every day and again at the seder. n
Rabbi Daniel Fliegler is a chaplain at the Regeis Care Center in the Bronx.