Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reading Exodus

I almost forgot my comment on the parashat ha-shavua, last week's Torah portion, Parashat Va-era. Here it is.

The second portion of Exodus (covering 6:2-9:35), Va-era contains the first seven of the ten plagues and also happens to be my bar mitzvah parshah. The haftarah is Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the plagues is the "hardening of Pharaoh's heart." This is often viewed as a paradox, contradicting free will. It also seems gratuitous: why can't G-d just free the Israelites, or let Pharaoh free them? The traditional commentators have wrestled with it, as have modern ones. The answers they come up with often seem vague: "heightening the drama" is the major theme of many approaches, both ancient and modern.

But a much more satisfying answer is in the text, if we examine it carefully. Hardening Pharaoh's heart was necessary, not just to heighten the drama, but to make Pharaoh release the Israelites for the right reason, not just to make himself look good to his subjects and courtiers, or as an emotional response to the devastation of the plagues. What is the right reason in this case? To acknowledge divine sovereignty as superior to his own and admit that he was not a god. Apparent inconsistencies fall into place if we follow the text carefully with this in mind.*

In response to those plagues which caused Pharaoh to temporarily give in (although he always changes his mind once the plague had passed), the text tells us that the king allowed us to "Go, sacrifice to your G-d" (8:24). Pharaoh's responses in the other cases, although varying in scope (sacrifice within Egypt, let only the men go, etc.), remained constant in style: It is your god whom you seek to worship, not mine. This attitude always limits and qualifies his temporary cave-ins.

And to sneak a peak at next week's portion (Parashat Bo): This is why the plagues end with the plague of the first born, something that the Egyptian wizards could not manage and could not be attributed to any Egyptian god. In response to this final plague (12:32), Pharaoh adds: u-veirakhtem gam-oti (And bring a blessing on me too!), which contains his whole capitulation by implication.

Pharaoh has to admit that neither he nor any other Egyptian god is really a god. But he also has to admit that it is G-d who is doing the freeing, not himself. Otherwise, Pharaoh would have viewed himself as their liberator - and, crucially, so would the Israelites. Instead, he, the Egyptians, and the Israelites are forced to see who is G-d, who frees the slaves, and why. This is why in the Haggadah on Pesach, we sing the praises of, not Pharaoh, not even Moses, but G-d.

The haftarah has a curious confirmation: Ezekiel's prophecy (29:6) against Egypt, delivered in the year (587 BCE) before the Babylonian exile, says that, again,

"Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am YHVH."

But the parshah itself announces it at the beginning (6:7):

"And you shall know that I, YHVH, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians."
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* Cf. the comment of Sforno, the sixteenth-century Italian exegete, on Exodus 4:21 and 7:3: "And I will harden his heart": Since he will be unable to tolerate the plagues, he would certainly emancipate the people - not because he accepts the sovereignty of God and to do His will - therefore He hardened his heart to be able to withstand the plagues and not to free them.

It helps to know that "harden" is chazaq in Hebrew - literally, "strengthen."

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