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Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

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Bo’Hardened Heart

 

Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

Then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and of your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am Adonai.’” - Exodus 10:1-2

 

P’shat – Explanation

This parasha contains one of the great ethical dilemmas in Torah. If God takes credit for “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart, how can we hold Pharaoh culpable for his evil actions?  Moreover, how are we to reconcile God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart with the concept that we human beings have “free will” and are therefore ultimately responsible for our choices and their consequences?

Traditional rabbinic commentators like to point out that the book of Exodus mentions the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart some twenty times, half of them seemingly caused by God and the other half by Pharaoh’s decisions. Pharaoh thus becomes culpable in spite of God’s role, because all God has to do is to push him in the direction of his own natural inclinations and then he makes choices that harden his heart on his own. As the Rabbis in the Talmud wisely declare, “A person is led by the way he wishes to follow” (Talmud Makkot 10b).

The Rabbis also suggest that because Pharaoh’s own evil heart continually chose to oppress our ancestors, all God has to do to “harden his heart” is say, “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; so, I will simply add to your uncleanness" (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3).

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“Love, hate, fear, and hope grow on what they impel us to do.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan says that our deepest emotions of love, hate, fear, and hope impel us to act according to our own inclinations. The choices we make, impelled by our most passionate emotions, often take on a life of their own, becoming what psychologists call “self-fulfilling prophecies,” even when the implications are contrary to our best interests. 

Such was the case in the Torah with Pharaoh. Through Kaplan’s eyes, Pharaoh’s strong emotions—his hatred of the Israelites and his fear that their growing numbers may foment rebellion leading to a possible overthrow of his rule—build on their own power, increasingly hardening Pharaoh’s heart and turning him into more of a despot. The more he allows his fears and insecurities to drive him, the more oppressive he becomes, to the point that the Israelites’ cries become so great, they reach the ears of God, and lead to Pharaoh’s own destruction.

This is also what Kaplan meant when he taught, “Human beings are the only creatures of circumstances that are also creators of circumstances.”[i] How the Pharaoh in the Exodus story reacts to his circumstances helps to create the very circumstances for the Israelites’ liberation.

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Choices and Consequences

The phone rang late one night. A pleading, hysterical father from my congregation was on the line.  “We just found out that my son was arrested yesterday in Florida where he is going to college. It’s crazy because he was only doing what so many other college kids do all the time. All he did was try to use a fake ID to get into a nightclub with his friends, but in Florida having a fake ID is a felony and our son is in a total panic. Oh, my God, rabbi, he just spent sixteen hours in jail! We need your help to keep him from having his life ruined.”

Knowing what an outstanding, conscientious young man their son was, it was hard to imagine that a simple, foolish but common college-age act such as having a fake ID might actually compromise his entire future. He had maintained a 4.0 average in high school, and was selected as a presidential scholar. He was attending college as a varsity athlete on a full scholarship which was now threatened by his arrest. Furthermore, this positive, caring young man had created his own program to help the homeless while still in high school, and at age nineteen had become certified as a personal trainer to boot. Yet, with all those good works in his past, his current missteps were now leading him to appear before a judge the very next day. His parents were desperate to get a character reference letter from me in time to impress upon the judge that this young man had deep, long-term ties to the community and his life and ethics had been exemplary except for making this one dumb decision.

Of course, I wrote the letter, but first I spoke with him on the phone. “I can’t believe how much I screwed up,” he said.  “I learned some important life lessons that I never, ever wanted to have to learn like this. Oh God, I sure don’t ever want to feel this way about myself again, and I will be eternally grateful if you can help in any way possible.”  Fortunately, the combination of letters such as mine attesting to his outstanding character and stellar record leading up to this one foolish decision, combined with the luck of having a truly compassionate judge who believed in his heartfelt remorse resulted in a suspended sentence that gave him the opportunity to keep his record clean.

The fact is, we all do stupid things from time to time.  We say things we regret; we make snap decisions that seem to make sense in the moment which we realize later were hurtful to others. I suspect that every one of us could make a long list of poor choices when we ignored or failed to see the potential negative consequences of our choices and as such later regretted our actions.

Our ancestors recognized that each of us has both positive and negative inclinations within us. We can harden our hearts with fear and hate or open them with love and hope.  We can bend the rules with audacity or uphold them with integrity. Every day we are challenged to remember that these choices may end up determining the very nature of our character. As Kaplan suggests, the choices we make truly matter, for inclinations are built upon inclinations, impelling us to further action, and ultimately those choices determine the very people we become.

 

 

 

 

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Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781