Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
What does it mean that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” (Ex. 9:12) If the goal was to free our people from Egyptian servitude, why make Pharaoh endure the Ten Plagues when he might have let us go after six?
The Exodus was our Exodus, of course, but it was about far more than the Jewish people. God brought us out of Egypt to establish God’s supremacy not only for us, but for the world, “so as to show you My power, and so that my name will be told through all the earth.” (Ex. 9:16) In the ancient world, most people believed that each collection of gods were local, and that the closer one was to where they “lived” the more powerful they became. The power of these gods was expressed through the power of the people who lived under them – so that powerful cities or nations were thought to have more powerful gods than weaker polities. Egypt, as the superpower of its day, was widely recognized as having the most powerful gods of all. The Ten Plagues not only refuted the power of the Egyptian gods in the place where they should have been strongest, but specifically took them out one by one. The Nile, which was worshipped, became blood. Ra the sun god could not prevent the darkness. Pharaoh, who was supposed to be a god himself, could not save his first-born son. The full course of Ten Plagues left virtually every single god of Egypt revealed as a false god. Anything less might have allowed for God’s supremacy to be challenged.
Yet, this leaves us with moral dilemma. Pharaoh, no matter how evil he was, was seemingly manipulated by God to the point where he ceased to have any free will at all. How could God force a person to do things against his will that would only result in magnifying his suffering and that of his people? Isn’t God just? Let’s look at the Hebrew for the word we usually translate as “hardened” – va’yechazeiq. The literal translation of this word is “strengthened.” What does it mean to strengthen one’s heart? It means to strengthen that which is already there. God did not change Pharaoh, but rather made Pharaoh more stubbornly pharaoh-like.
Pharaoh was not pure evil; sometimes he could even be sensitive – such as when he admitted to Moses, “I have offended this time. The Lord is in the right and I am my people are in the wrong.” (Ex. 9:27) However, he only enters this softer space when he feels the pressure of suffering after a plague. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it, Pharaoh was sensitive to a point but resisted the moral challenge: “Pharaoh was capable of understanding the moral significance of events. However, due to his firm heart he was too cognizant of economic [and power] interests which clashed with the moral imperative.” (HaAdam Ve’Olamo, pp. 92-3, 1998)
This is a lesson for every generation. We can stubbornly strengthen our hearts against what we know is morally right as we pursue our own perceived self-interests. However, in doing so we are only practicing a form of idolatry. We are serving that which is not real, has no value and ultimately can provide us neither security nor sustenance. We are selling ourselves a lie. Torah and history both demonstrate that such a path always leads those who follow it to eventual loss and even destruction.
Living with soft and open hearts, being sensitive to the needs of others, pursuing lives of service – these are among the teachings of Torah that have sustained us for thousands of years and will continue to do so for thousands more yet to come.
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches that Jewish spirituality is encapsulated in our ever-repeating cycle of exile and return. This week, with parashat Shemot, we begin the greatest iteration of this cycle in the history of our people: the narrative of our Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The story is one of redemption, of the creation of a great people, of a future brimming with hope. Yet our story begins not with hope, but with suffering, pain and disillusionment:
Joseph and his generation die and a new pharaoh arises in Egypt “who knew not Joseph.” [Ex. 1:8] Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of fear that we might grow so numerous as to threaten his power. The first Shoah (Holocaust) then follows, with the royal command to throw every newborn Israelite boy into the river to drown.
Of course, we know that Pharaoh ultimately fails. We know that Moses will be born, saved from infanticide by his sister and mother, raised in Pharaoh’s own household by Pharaoh’s daughter and then called by God to confront Pharaoh and save the Israelite people. We know this, but what if we didn’t? What if we read the story without knowing the end?
In this week’s parasha, we descend from safety to slavery and then possible destruction. A baby boy survives, grows up and eventually makes it out of Egypt, where he settles into life as a shepherd – living a peaceful and comfortable life. One day he notices a burning bush and perceives that God is calling to him from the bush. Moses resists the call, saying in every way that he can that the task is beyond his ability. However, God forces the reluctant future leader to pick up the mantle. On the way to Egypt, God – who is sending Moses to Egypt in the first place – afflicts Moses with a deadly illness. His wife Zipporah manages to barely save Moses’ life by circumcising their son. Finally, in Egypt, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn increases the burden of slavery on the Israelites, who then blame Moses.
Not knowing how the story ends, what would we do next? Would we overcome our despair, or would it overcome us?
We live in a tumultuous world. We always have. Sometimes we enjoy periods of return, more often we find ourselves in exile. When we experience the joy of return, we face the danger of taking our bounty for granted and then losing our way. When we experience the pain of exile, we face the danger of giving in and giving up – and then losing our way. When we lose our way, we can no longer see a clear path forward. However, just because we cannot see a way forward, does not mean that it does not exist.
At the end of this week’s parashah, the situation seems hopeless to the people and to Moses. Yet Torah teaches us to take the long view, that God has a vision for what the world can be, and that we are covenanted agents of change. So long as we stay true to our values, the wisdom of our tradition and to our Source and Creator, there is always a clear path forward and a future of Promise that awaits.
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
What is a blessing? This week’s parasha begs the question, as Jacob blesses his sons and grandsons from his deathbed in a most peculiar way.
When we Jews usually offer a blessing, our blessings fall into one of two categories. Whenever we say “thank you” to God, we are making a blessing – and this is the first category. See a rainbow? Offer a blessing. Enjoy a meal? Offer a blessing. Go to the bathroom and everything works? Offer a blessing (my personal favorite as I get older). Create holy time by lighting candles? Offer a blessing. In fact, cultivating a gratitude practice is, in and of itself, definitely a blessing!
The second kind of blessing is one we offer over people. With this kind of blessing we invoke God’s protective presence, and can insert our hopes and dreams for those we bless – for God to be with them, for their lives to be meaningful, for their health, well-being, happiness and success.
Neither of these categories exist in the book of Genesis, which this parasha concludes. The blessing which Jacob stole from Esau at the hands of their blind father was not about hopes and dreams. It was the formal mechanism that changed Jacob’s status, making him the new leader of the family. However, the blessings Jacob offers from his deathbed seem even more counterintuitive. Here are just a few examples:
“Reuven, my firstborn are you –
Seems a little harsh, right?
How on earth does Torah call these blessings?
Now, to be fair, some of Jacob’s blessings for his children and grandchildren were more positive – depending on the recipient. Plus, patriarchs were expected to offer blessings to their children as death approached.
The Sages teach that, in the moment, God gave Jacob the gift of prophecy so that he could see the future and convey what awaited each of his sons. However, this still doesn’t resolve the question of how a blessing could use the language of curses.
Regardless of whether Jacob could see the future, he certainly knew the past. He knew his sons, the choices they made – both good and bad, the lives they led. He knew them truly, and he judged them as his end drew near. We live our lives with blinders on. We tell ourselves little lies about what we do and how we live. We create narratives to explain away our poor choices or to overemphasize our lucky wins. Jacob blesses his sons by cutting through all of that and speaking the naked truth, teaching his sons that our past and current actions influence our future, and forcing them to acknowledge and take responsibility for the bad and the good that they have each respectively done.
Although there is nothing easy about this moment, it is in fact a gift. Reading his words today, thousands of years later, we can receive the same gift – with the luxury of not being directly in Jacob’s crosshairs! Poised between our ancestral and covenantal establishment in Genesis, and a future of both slavery and redemption in Exodus, we can ask ourselves: what is the truth of our actions? Where will they lead us if we continue on the paths we are on? Where do truly want to be? This is the blessing Jacobs gives us all.
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
Reuben was the first born, but Judah was the leader. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Judah was the one the other brothers followed. It was Judah who wanted to throw Joseph into the pit, who was ready to sell him into slavery for profit; and it was Judah who risked it all at the beginning of this week’s parashah to do the opposite.
Last week’s portion left us with a real cliffhanger. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, had cruelly tested his brothers to see if they had changed. They had come to Egypt during the great famine in search of food, and did not recognize the powerful Egyptian man in charge as their long-lost brother. Joseph, however, recognized them! He was no longer the same arrogant youth they remembered, and wanted to know if they had grown as he had. So, he framed Benjamin, the only brother he had never met, the only other child of his mother Rachel – and sentenced him to a life of slavery for the “theft” of one of Joseph’s precious goblets. That is how last week’s parashah ended.
What would the brothers do? Would they abandon Benjamin the way they left Joseph in the pit? Would they plead for mercy?
No. They do not do either of these things. Instead, Judah does the unthinkable. VaYigash means “and he drew near.” Judah dared to walk right up to Joseph, who he knew only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Not only was this probably a violation of royal etiquette, but it could easily have been interpreted as a threatening move by the royal guards. Who knew how they might respond? Yet Judah drew close and offered himself in Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father, who loved Benjamin above all others – as he had previously loved Joseph.
This is the moment that Joseph had been waiting for! Judah, in submitting to a life of slavery for the sake of his family, demonstrated an extraordinary teshuvah. No longer the jealous and vengeful brother, Judah has suffered and learned from his mistakes and has grown as a human being and a leader. With this one selfless act, Judah effectively ended three generations of family dysfunction. No wonder the future kings of Israel would be from the tribe of Judah!
What did Joseph do?
He could have kept Benjamin for himself (as a beloved brother, not as a slave). He could have accepted Judah’s offer and nobody would have been the wiser, thus exacting his own revenge. However, Joseph too has grown. When Judah makes his offer, Joseph is barely able to contain himself. He orders all of his attendants out of the room and reveals himself to his brothers, speaking for the first time in their own language, “Ani Yosef! I am Joseph, your brother, who you sold into slavery. Fear not!” (Gen. 45:3-5 – paraphrased)
I love this story because it teaches us one of the fundamental truths of Torah: we are free agents. We have the ability to change, to grow, to heal. It may not be easy, but we have power over ourselves, and over our future. Let us exercise that power with love, compassion and wisdom.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras