Friday, December 27, 2013

"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart"

And I will harden Pharaoh's heart"

(Exodus 7:3)
Tevet 24, 5774/December 27, 2013

From the moment G-d shared His plans for Israel, Moshe replied with two questions: Will Israel believe that You have sent me, and will Pharaoh pay heed to my words? Concerning Israel, G-d equipped Moshe with His holy name and with His promise to their forefathers, but concerning Pharaoh, G-d simply said, "I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go." (Exodus 3:19) Was G-d, in His omniscience, merely anticipating Pharaoh's response, or was G-d determining for Pharaoh his own mind? If the former, then G-d's "leak" to Moshe is no more than a Divine spoiler, alerting Moshe to what has yet to happen. But if the latter, then we may ask, and justifiably so, what has become of Pharaoh's free will? Isn't his humanity and isn't his potential to do good or evil inherently bound to his G-d given ability to make up his own mind, to choose his own course of action? And further, if he has been stripped of his own free will, how can he be punished for his actions which were pre-determined by G-dG-d has set out to reveal His oneness and His omnipotence to the world, but has He provided a level playing field, or is G-d simply beating up on the hapless Pharaoh? Is G-d being a bully?

The answer would be yes, were it not for one essential element in the fundamental relationship between G-d and man. G-d created man with a physical body akin to the other "beasts of the earth" that He created on the sixth day. But then G-d breathed into man an additional life force, a more elevated aspiration: G-d breathed into man the conscious knowledge of G-d! This is what distinguishes man from G-d's other living creations, and it is this knowledge of G-d which is the source of man's ability to choose. What we call in today's world, "free-will," is so much more than the ability to choose what color socks we will wear today, with whom we want to share our lives, or even what candidate we will vote for. These are all expressions of personal autonomy not to be dismissed, but ultimately they hardly provide a distinction between ourselves and the other animals in the food chain. What does distinguish man is our ability to choose between good and evil, right and wrong. Or more simply put, between G-d's will and our own will. This, and only this, is the source and the purpose of our humanity. For this G-d created man!

Mankind is filled with an entire spectrum of semi-autonomous beings who range from the very evil to the most righteous. But we all share the same basic calculus: The greater the distance we maintain between ourselves and G-d the greater is our exposure to temptation and the greater our capacity to do evil. The closer we strive toward G-d the greater our exposure to His truth and the greater our desire and ability to do good. From the most depraved to the most righteous, we are all human beings, we are all G-d's children, because we all work according to this principle. What books we choose to read, what songs we choose to sing and what walk we choose to walk, that is, the great symphony of human self- declaration, are all but expressions of our unique position along the G-d-man continuum, where our will is in relationship to where G-d's will is.

In the book of Genesis we meet a rogues gallery of figures who are ill-at-ease with G-d's presence in the world. The generation of the flood showed great contempt for G-d. The generation of the dispersion, (the Tower of Babel), sought to dislodge and replace G-d, and the inhabitants of Sodom sought to pervert the will of G-d through their decadent sophistry. But none of these generations, nor the individuals that led them astray ever denied the existence of G-d.

Pharaoh was the first who said, "I know not HaShem." (ibid 5:2) Pharaoh didn't merely distance himself from G-d; he didn't merely challenge G-d'sauthority or even G-d's ability to impose His will. Pharaoh denied G-d. In doing so Pharaoh severed the bond between his earth-bound animal being and the divine breath of his own humanity. The covenant between man and G-d that insured man's free-will and preserved a human autonomy for making up one's own mind for good or evil, was nullified. From this point on Pharaoh was no more than a beast of the field, a pawn in G-d's hand whose continued authority over Egypt was but a prop by which G-d would reveal His sovereignty over all creation. When G-d"hardened Pharaoh's heart," plague after deadly plague He was hardening the heart of a man who had already, by virtue of his own last expression of free will, ("I know not HaShem"), willfully opted out of his own humanity.

Ultimately, over the course of the ten plagues, Pharaoh would begin to recognize that there is a G-d independent of Pharaoh, and G-d would restore to Pharaoh his ability to harden his own heart, or not. But while Pharaoh fulfilled the role of chief antagonist of the Exodus drama, he is not unique among the annals of mankind, and certainly exists, at least in potential, in all of us. Today the world is filled with many Pharaohs. Some are leaders, other are followers. But each pursues his or her own course of action based on the self-evident "truth" that there is no G-d. With this self-dehumanizing certitude, the path to enslaving others or enslaving oneself to others is infinitesimally short. Today's Pharaohs can be recognized just as our Pharaoh was recognized: By the role they play in attempting to deny G-d by denying the manifestation of His plan. Those, great or small, who seek to strip the land of Israel from the children of Israel, to wrest Jerusalem from G-d's chosen, and to bequeath the place of G-d's Holy Temple to the preachers of hate and merchants death, these are today's Pharaohs. So long as they deny G-d, He shall harden their hearts. And we whose hearts are open, we shall worship G-d in His holy Sanctuary!

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