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Parashat Va’era 5774 — 12/25/2013

Parashat Va’era 5774 — 12/25/2013

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart. (Shemos 7:3)

Many people ask – How could the gates of repentance be locked before Pharaoh? These gates are normally open to everyone, even the worst sinners.

   The explanation is that sinners are usually given help from Heaven to repent. This is what we ask when we pray, Hachazireinu b’teshuvah sheleimah I’fanecha – “Bring us back in complete repentance before You.’  On the other hand, some sinners have piled up so many transgressions that help from Heaven is withheld from them, and they must arouse themselves to repent.

   Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Moshe to go to Pharaoh and inform him that he had gone so far with his wickedness that Hashem had decided to punish him by not helping him to repent. Hashem’s statement, for I have hardened his heart, means [not that “I, Hashem, am preventing him from repenting:’ but rather] “His heart is already hardened, for My assistance in arousing him to repent has been withheld from him’ But Pharaoh’s ability to exercise his free will, and repent on his own, was never taken from him.  (Chafetz Chaim)

It is axiomatic in Judaism that human beings have free will.  If we didn’t, how could the Torah prescribe to us the way we should live our lives, and the rewards for doing so, and the punishments for doing otherwise?  When Gd tells us “Choose life,” it must be that we have a choice in the matter, that Gd steps back as it were from controlling the functioning of the universe, and leaves a “space,” as it were, in the moral dimension, where we can submit to His Will or rebel against it.  Since we have the opportunity to rebel, and since nobody is perfect, there must be a path back to Gd – this is t’shuvah, literally, return.  It seems to me that the Chafetz Chaim is saying that even to do t’shuvah we need Gd’s help, and that  this help is generally forthcoming.  He implies that even in exceptional cases, where Gd’s help is not forthcoming, t’shuvah is still possible.

Our tradition identifies two types of t’shuvah: t’shuvah from fear and t’shuvah from love.  The first is driven by fear of consequences.  If we sin, there are negative consequences.  If we catch ourselves early enough, our spiritual sensibilities may not be so dulled as to be aware of those consequences; alternatively, the consequences may be so severe and so clearly tied to the sin that it is obvious that we need a new approach.  That is why Torah spells out in such detail what the consequences of sin are – so that we recognize them when they come and take immediate corrective action.  Even better, we avoid sin in the first place.  This t’shuvah out of fear is a lower form of t’shuvah.  If you beat a dog every time he does a specific action, he will stop doing that action.  If the connection between sin and consequences were always clear and immediate, this kind of t’shuvah out of fear would probably be as far as we ever got.  Since the connection is not always so clear, many people don’t even reach this level.  In some cases, such as Pharoah’s, where he had the greatest prophet ever to live standing in front of him and explicitly making the connection for him, the person is stubborn enough to refuse to repent at all.

The more profound level of t’shuvah is t’shuvah from love – specifically, from love of Gd.  The primary consequence of sin is that it estranges us from Gd.  This is of course a spiritual consequence, and most of us are already so estranged from Gd that we probably won’t notice a little bit more.  Nevertheless the cycle of sin-spiritual dulling-further sin needs to be broken into somehow.  It generally happens when the person gets a “wake-up call” from Gd, that forces him to do a complete re-evaluation of the direction of his life.  At that point, hopefully, the person is not just reeling from the physical/material consequences of his actions, but takes the opportunity to go deeper and ask the reason that the whole situation is developing.  The result of this evaluation should be an awareness that the life choices he has been making have left him empty inside, lacking in his essential humanity, disconnected from ultimate reality.  This awareness, in turn, should provoke a longing to reconnect with Gd.  When we change our lives around because we want to be close to Gd, this is t’shuvah from love.

There is, of course, another level of t’shuvah from love.  When we reach a level where we have gained some closeness to Gd, we feel most of all His great love for us, no matter what our external circumstances may be.  At that point, Gd’s concerns become more important to us than our own concerns.  We realize that Gd’s concerns are universal, while ours are finite and bounded.  When this understanding is rooted in our awareness, it is virtually impossible to sin, because we can perceive almost viscerally that the action will cause a dark cloud to cover the sun of Gd’s radiance.  If we do slip up, the regret and the righting of the wrong will be immediate and almost automatic.  This is the highest form of t’shuvah – not sinning to begin with!

One would presume that a stubborn and arrogant man like Pharaoh would be on the lowest rung of t’shuvah.  His declaration Who is Hashem?!  (5:2) pretty much rules out t’shuvah from love!  Certainly Hashem was contributing to his t’shuvah from fear.  By the end of our Parashah the first seven plagues have Pharaoh saying “Hashem is the righteous one and I and my people are in the wrong,” (9:27) but the admission is on the surface only.  Moses replies, “I know that you and your servants haven’t yet reached the level of fear of Hashem,” (9:30) and indeed, as soon as the hail stops, Pharaoh returns to his old tricks.

Perhaps this is what the Chafetz Chaim is alluding to when he tells us that Hashem did not help Pharaoh repent.  It’s not so hard to repent for the little stuff – you do a small thing wrong, you apologize, maybe you even spend some time thinking about why you reacted the way you did, you resolve to do better next time, and hopefully you do do better next time.  This is a valuable exercise to be sure, and for those on the receiving end of your bad reactions it’s a very important improvement.  Marriages, families, businesses can all be saved by this kind of repentence.

Pharaoh was not faced with a small things.  Pharaoh was learning the hard way that his whole life, from its intellectual and spiritual underpinnings to its opulent surface, was based on false premises, and would not be able to stand up to reality.  Everything he thought he knew, about himself, about others, about nature, was being unmasked as a set of self-serving lies.  He was being asked to go through the wrenching process of re-evaluating everything and making the appropriate changes.  In this case, he was being asked to change Egyptian society from a slave-driven economy to a free economy, and to acknowledge himself as a creature and not the Creator.  Anyone who has gone through this kind of transformation knows how difficult it is.  In fact, without Gd’s help, either as a silent support deep within, or on some more overt level, I don’t believe it’s really possible.  It certainly was not possible for Pharaoh, for even after the 10 plagues have forced him to let Israel go, he still goes chasing after them to bring them back!

We are all born egotists.  As infants we insist that our needs be met.  As we grow, we begin to establish relationships where there is greater mutuality.  When we become parents we really switch from receiving mode to giving mode.  But the real transformation that we are all called upon to make is to acknowledge that beyond our individual natures there is a level of universality that is in fact the only reality there is – infinite, unbounded, unchanging, eternal.  This is a total transformation of our awareness, and whether it be out of love or out of fear, it is not easy, and in fact is probably the project of a lifetime.  It takes constant reminding, which is what our prayers and our mitzvot are set up to do.  And it takes Gd’s help, to put us in the right places at the right times so that we have the experiences we need and are faced with the choices we need to make, in order to progress towards our goal.  The rest is up to us!

Shemoneh Esrei

And for the slanderers may there be no hope

And may all evil vanish in a moment

And may all Your enemies be cut off quickly

And may You uproot and smash and cast down and humble willful sinners speedily in our days.

Blessed are You, Hashem, Who breaks enemies and humbles willful sinners.

The expression shemoneh esrei simply means 18, and refers to the 18 blessings of the amidah.  Every amidah has the same basic structure: The first three blessings are always the same and are blessings of praise (on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur there are additions made in these blessings).  The last three blessings are also always the same; they are blessings of thanksgiving.  In the middle there is either a series of blessings of request for all our needs (daily amidah) or a single blessing of sanctification of the day that deals with the particular qualities of that day (Shabbat and Yom Tov, all Musaf’s except Rosh haShanah which has 3 blessings).  In the daily amidah there are 12 blessings for a total of 18, hence the name.  But wait you say!  I just counted and there are 13 blessings in the middle part!

You are correct then!  When the order of the prayers was first fixed by the Anshei K’nesset haGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly, in Ezra’s time at the beginning of the 2nd Temple period, c 500 BCE) there were in fact 12 blessings in the middle of the daily amidah.  Some centuries later, when internal dissension had become a major problem in the Jewish community (as it still is), and talebearing to the oppressive Roman government had become a real danger, the current blessing was added.

Since this blessing was to be said by all Jews throughout the ages, and since we know that words, especially words of prayer spoken from the heart, have a very powerful effect, it was crucial that the words that would excoriate this kind of sinner be carefully chosen.  The Talmud tells us that a Sage named Shmuel haKatan, Shmuel the Small, was chosen to compose this blessing, specifically because of the fact that he never harbored any negativity towards anyone in his heart.  He was the one who came closest to the Divine ideal: As I live says Hashem Gd, I do not desire the death of the wicked, but that he turn from his way and live. (Yechezkel 33:11).

We as individuals, and the Jewish people as a whole, certainly have no dearth of enemies against whom we might turn our venom, and it is certainly proper that we ask Gd to deliver us from their hands.  (It is also proper that we take whatever actions may be necessary to defend ourselves from them.)  But we need to take a step back and contemplate the damage that we can cause to ourselves if we let negativity overtake our thinking and certainly our speech.  When I say this b’rachah I try to keep my awareness on the idea that those who seek to do me harm should repent, and that I be protected by Gd from whatever it is they’re planning to do.  I also pray that I be able to overcome the forces of negativity within me that drive me to incorrect and life-damaging behavior.  When you look for what in this blessing speaks to you, do bear in mind the purity its source.