God tells Moses that he is going to ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ so that he will not allow the Children of Israel to leave Egypt. It makes sense – miraculous plague after miraculous plague descends upon his country, destroying crops, livestock and people. At a certain point, the pressure was surely too much and Pharaoh would have just thrown the Children of Israel out had God not hardened his heart.
This is the only place in the entire Bible that God takes away a human being’s freewill. And the Rabbis talk about it extensively as a result. In Jewish thinking, freewill is sacred. It is the sole purpose of the world we live in. We are here to choose – and nothing else. God could have created us as angels in a purely spiritual realm, basking in the glory of his transcendence. Instead, he created this material world, to give us the experience of freewill and hence develop independence for ourselves. (A much better set up in my mind.) And so, God will never, ever, restrict our freedom of choice because without it, our existence in this world would be rendered meaningless.
In my mind, modern psychology, beginning with Freud, has served to significantly undermine the belief in the power of our own freewill. The attitude nowadays is that so much of who we are is dictated by parents, upbringing and life experiences. And there is little we can do to change it. This leads us to disempowerment and blame. Poor old Prince Harry seems to have someone or something to assign responsibility to for almost every choice he’s made in life. Even when he wore a Nazi uniform, Kate and William shared the blame because they laughed when he showed it to them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he says he has spent a great deal of time in therapy.
It is my belief, consistent with Jewish philosophy, that we are all masters of our own destiny. We have a strong level of control over, and are hence responsible for, our state of mind, our opinions, our values, our emotional wellbeing and, ultimately our choices and actions.
There is no word for ‘victim’ in Classical Hebrew. There is a borrowed term in Modern Hebrew, but it is misappropriated. I don’t believe that anyone is ever a ‘victim’ in the sense of how it’s used nowadays. Rather, I fully concur with the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment’. It is not that a person IS helpless and passive. It is that they have come to feel that way. Incorrectly so. (And I do understand, innocently so.) Because we are never helpless and passive unless we choose to be so. Our life is always our own to live. No one is ever damaged or broken. The future is ours to create for ourselves with a blank canvas, no matter the past. If we choose to do so. Freewill carries with it so much hope and possibility. For God to take it away requires extreme circumstances – such a Pharaoh and the slavery in Egypt. Other than that, freewill is an absolute – the greatest gift that God has bestowed upon humanity.
Parsha in a Nutshell
After a little hiccup in last week’s portion, Moses gets his dialogue with Pharaoh back on track. Pharaoh, with God’s prompting, doesn’t allow the Jewish people to leave and that’s when things really heat up.
The plagues come fast and furious – blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence (whatever that is), boils & hail. Pharaoh is always willing to let them go in the midst of the plague, but once the excitement has subsided, he quickly changes his mind.
Three more plagues and the dénouement next week.