Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Rabbi Baht Weiss
My mother used to have a weekend and summer home in the Catskill Mountains. It was very peaceful and beautiful, and my mother enjoyed going there but it was a lot of maintenance for one person. It was a significant distance from her primary residence in the city and there was also limited cell service when she was there. I often worried about her going there alone.
One day she called me to tell me her car had broken down on the highway on the way to the Catskills. Just weeks later, there was a storm that destroyed her car in its entirety. I said to her, “Do you perhaps think that this is a sign that it’s time to stop driving and give up the house.”
Were these coincidences or divine intervention? Who can know for sure. I believe that the universe or God gives us signs all the time. Our body gives us signs of health, that we need more rest, we need to slow down, we need better nutrition or more exercise, and we often ignore those warnings until we are fully sick or require medication or hospitalization.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, Pharaoh isn’t good at heeding the warnings from God. After 7 plagues, Pharaoh still hasn’t agreed to free the Hebrew slaves, despite the damage and destruction God’s marvels are reeking on him and the Egyptian people. Pharaoh was exceedingly stubborn. We look at Pharaoh incredulously that he could ignore 9 plagues before finally letting the Jewish people go, but sometimes we too are stubborn and turn a blind eye to indications around us. We refuse to face reality.
The Torah portion opens by instructing Moses, Bo, Come to Pharaoh. God tells Moses, “I have hardened his heart so that I may set signs of Mine.” For the first plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but then the language changes and it says -that it was God who caused his heart to harden. By the time we get to the final plagues, Pharaoh’s heart has become so conditioned to being heavy or hard, that there was no longer a possibility of appealing to compassion, empathy or even logic.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, “The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change, the more he is determined by his pervious action…there comes a point of no return when man’s heart has become so hardened that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” (You Shall Not Be As Gods, 1966, p101.)
Habits are formed. Behavior that we engage in at an early age is harder to change as we become accustomed to such behavior. Like the plaque that forms on the arteries of one’s heart, once there is too much buildup, it is harder to fix.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, known as Resh Lakish, explained that God gave Pharaoh several opportunities to change his mind and allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. He views the plagues as warnings. In Exodus Rabbah (13:3) he explains, “Since God warned him five times and Pharaoh refused to pay attention and continue to stiffen his heart, God told him, “I will now add more trouble to what you have made yourself.” In another words, Pharaoh brought on the condition by his own stubbornness.
How do we learn from our behavior and learn to be mindful of the signs that are before us each day? Medieval commentator Maimonides explained that being a prophet does not mean predicting the future but rather being able to interpret what is happening in the present. As my teacher Rabbi Leonard Kravitz used to say to us, if its cloudy outside, you bring an umbrella. That doesn’t make you a prophet, it just means that you are using your reasoning skills.
May we too be responsive to the world around us, adopting flexibility in place of stubbornness and living with open and attentive hearts.