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Parashat Va’era 5779 — 01/05/2019

Parashat Va’era 5779 — 01/05/2019

Shemot 6:2-9:35
Parashat Va’eira contains the first 7 plagues. After the first 5, Pharaoh “hardens his heart” as Gd predicted would happen. In the subsequent plagues, Gd “hardens Pharaoh’s heart.” The obvious problem here, which we have discussed before, is whether Gd’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart precludes his ability to repent and let the Israelites go, thereby interfering with his free will. If this is in fact so, how does Gd have the right to inflict suffering on Pharaoh (and all Egypt) for acting as they did, if they had no choice but to do so?
R. Goldin begins his discussion by pointing out that there are three bedrock beliefs in Judaism:

  1. Human beings have free will – they can choose how to act and enjoy the consequences of those actions.
  2. Gd is Omniscient, and knows everything, including what choices each person will make. (Since Gd transcends time, His Omniscience can be understood, to an extent. Squaring it with free will is a bit harder, and probably requires something more akin to Gd’s perspective than to our own.)
  3. Some elements of our lives, both individual and communal are predestined. On the individual level, our DNA constrains what we can and can’t do. On the national level, belief in Mashiach’s coming implies a predetermined goal of history. Nonetheless, within these constraints, we still have free will.

R. Goldin then surveys the classical responses to these issues. He first cites R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), a great – great nephew of the famous Ramchal (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), who asserts:
Know that all acts can be ascribed to Gd, for all are caused by Him – some through absolute decree and others through man’s free choice which has been granted by Him … It can therefore be said the [Gd], as the author of all acts, hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

It is not immediately clear how this distinction clears up the problem of Pharaoh’s free will, or lack of it, but I would like to return to the idea that all action can be ascribed to Gd, because it will give us an insight into the nature of life and the nature of human consciousness.

R. Goldin also cites a Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Shemot 13:3) in which the Sage Reish Lakish states that once one has had the chance to repent and does not, Gd removes the person’s ability to repent. Reish Lakish gives the reason so that Gd can exact punishment for his sins. Whether or not one accepts this model, it is certainly a profound insight into human psychology. Habit is very hard to break, and once one gets into a behavioral rut, it becomes more and more difficult to get out of it. Furthermore, as we get deeper and deeper into the hole of wrong behavior, we become more and more creative at rationalizing what we are doing. As the Talmud says, we turn our sins into “mitzvahs.”

Interestingly, it is the same Reish Lakish who tells us that true repentance, repentance not from fear of Gd’s punishment, but from a profound love of Gd and desire to be close to Gd, actually does “repackage” past sins into mitzvot. The process of repentance actually changes a past reality (even if it doesn’t change the physical reality). Since, as we have mentioned, Gd is transcendental to time, and t’shuvah / repentance involves coming close to Gd, it should not appear strange that t’shuvah can “reach back” in time to change present reality.

I would like to turn for a moment to something my own Rabbi, R. Wes Kalmar, said in a sermon on parashat Vayigash. R. Kalmar pointed out that when Yosef reveals himself to the brothers, there is a sequence of expressions that he uses to describe their previous interaction: (Gen 45:4) I am Yosef your brother whom you sold into Egypt. (45:7) Thus Gd has sent me ahead of you… (45:8) It was not you who sent me here… I will add that later, in Parashat Vayechi (50:20), Yosef tells his brothers: Although you intended me harm, Gd intended it for good…. R. Kalmar points out that the sequence moves the authorship of action from the brothers (“you sold”) to an intermediate stage (“you intended me harm, but Gd intended it for good”) where the action is still initiated by the brothers, but Gd “hijacks” it, as it were, to use for His own purposes, to a final stage where the authorship of action is in Gd’s hands (“It was not you…,” “Gd sent me…”).

I think we can view the plagues themselves as conveying a similar kind of sequence. R. Goldin points out that Pharaoh, during his initial encounters with Moshe and Aharon, denies three things: (1) the existence of Gd, (2) Gd’s involvement in the life of individuals and (3) Gd’s control of nature. The first three plagues are prefaced with Gd’s declaration to Pharaoh: With this you shall know that I am Gd (7:16). The second three are prefaced by That you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land (8:18). The third group of three is prefaced by And you may know that there is none like Me in all the land (9:14). This sequence begins with Gd’s existence, but possible aloofness from the world, to a stage where Gd is involved with human beings, to a final stage where all action is from Gd.

I believe that Torah is conveying to us a profound lesson in the growth of consciousness. In our ordinary state of consciousness we associate ourselves with our bodies, mind, emotions. We see ourselves acting, making choices. We ascribe to ourselves the authorship of action. As our consciousness expands, we become more and more aware of deeper levels of our self, until we fully identify with our deepest level, our unbounded, eternal soul. This is the most silent, transcendental level of our self, and when we identify with it, we realize that we, the real we inside, is beyond the entire world of action and reaction. We don’t act at all. Who acts then? It is Gd Who is the author of all action! Gd may act through us – that is, through our bodies and minds, but we are just the silent witness of all that is going on. We have transcended action and we have transcended any issue of free will. We, just as the rest of nature, are in Gd’s hands, only now we simply go with the flow, rather than trying to fight it.

As we have discussed, we achieve this identification with the silent core of our being by repeatedly experiencing it alternating with activity, until our mind and nervous system become cultured enough to maintain awareness of our silent, inner self at all times. If we do this, we will have a much smoother path to realization of the real interrelationship of Gd, ourselves and the world of action than Pharaoh or Yosef’s brothers.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Va’eira
“Va’eira” means “appeared.” Gd answers Moses’ complaint that Pharaoh has not listened to his message from Gd: let my people go. Gd tells Moses that He is appearing to Moses in Full Strength to deliver the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He will make them a great nation.
Exodus 6:2
“Gd spoke to Moses and He said to him, “I Am the Lrd.”
Exodus 6:31
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob with [the Name] Almighty Gd but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.”

As “Elohim” Gd speaks to Moses. He tells him He is “YudHeWawHe.” He then tells Moses that he appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “EL ShaDaI but as “YudHeWawHe” He did not become known by them (Rashi’s commentary).

Assuming this is so, we’ll tentatively look at YHWH as describing four different levels through which Gd, Totality, Appears within HimSelf, within Gd. These levels range from Maximum Abstraction to Maximum Concreteness — the four worlds of Kabbalah: Beriyah, Atzilut, Yetzirah and Asiyah; from this point of view Gd is telling Moses that He is giving him the whole range (manifest, at least) of existence and this should give Moses confidence that although Pharoah and the Children of Israel have not listened to Moses so far, they WILL listen because now Gd is giving him Total Support so Moses should do as Gd commands—tell Pharoah to free Gd’s people.

There seems to be a hierarchy through which Gd is recognized by humans and it seems that neither Abraham, Isaac nor Jacob recognized the Full Wholeness within which the Hierarchy exists—they did not experienced complete Oneness, despite Torah telling us that Abraham was “given every blessing.” Something seems to have been left out of their awareness but that seems to be given to Moses — at least, Gd is presenting Gd to Moses from all levels of Hierachy, and from the Wholeness within which they are increasingly “manifest” expressions.

In the rest of the parshah, Gd tells Moses that He will bring about 10 plagues through Moses and Aaron, hardening Pharoah’s heart each time so that Pharoah, who has denied Gd as One, will come to recognize that Gd is One, within whom all the Egyptian deities are but small expressions.

We might look at the physiological symbolism of Gd, Moses, Pharoah, Egypt and Promised Land from many angles. Dr.Tony Nader, whose books on Human Physiology and Ramayan in Human Physiology are familiar to many Beth Shalom congregants, presents a model which we might adapt to Torah for those people, places, things and events for which I have as yet found no Kabbalistic physiological representation.

For example, Gd would be the Total Physiology but also at every level of physiology He would be the Totality but especially the Central Governing Aspect. Canaan, the Promised Land, would correspond to a healthy physiology; Egypt would correspond to a stressed physiology. Pharoah particularly would correspond to a stressor of the whole physiology.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg in his book “Body, Mind and Soul”: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing says that all disease results from a lack of gratitude. From this angle, the slavery in Egypt resulted from our ancestors’ losing the ability to be aware of Gd as the source of all goodness. The return to freedom results from returning to recognition of Gd as the source of all and to increasingly live our life with a desire to attune to Him in gratitude — not as a mood but as the natural reality which occurs as we respect others, are kind to them, grateful to them, and through our respect for them, respect Gd, Gd’s Kindness and are grateful to Gd.

Torah study — listening, reciting, thinking about — in English but especially in Hebrew is a good tool to bring us into alignment with Gd and naturally to good health, good relations with others.

Prayer, especially the prayers of our siddur which generally do not ask Gd for help but praise Gd for His Qualities, beyond our present ability to know, but within the range of our ability to Know, through living a good life.

I continue to be very encouraged with the great friendliness, love and joy that I experience in so much of our Fairfield residents and very strongly in our Beth Shalom Congregation. I am very confident that the spiritual exile, the illness of our planet, is ending and that we are participating in ending it and I am confident that many of us are coming very close to Gd — no plagues needed!

Baruch HaShem