When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. Please contact the author.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
– Yeats, The Second Coming
This week’s Torah reading starts with a grammatical anomaly, the use of the pronoun “I.” Hebrew verbs define the person, number and gender of the subject – the one performing the action. When God says “I have made his heart heavy,” the action “I have made heavy” is expressed in a single word. This emphasis on the pronoun “I” will be echoed later in this portion when God announces the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn: “I shall go out into the midst of Egypt ad every firstborn male shall die.” God is emphasizing that, unlike the previous times when Pharaoh hardened his own heart, now God has taken direct control. “I,” says God, I alone have made Pharaoh’s heart heavy…”
This story of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is one of the most terrifying sequences in the Bible, as God directly intervenes to deny a person freedom to choose.
At the moment of Creation, God introduces humans, “in Our image and Our likeness.” This “image and likeness” mirrors God’s creative aspect and is bound up with free choice. The one decision upon which our humanity rests is the way in which we choose to relate to the world. Now God removes Pharaoh’s free choice, making Pharaoh mistreat the Israelites, and making him and his people pay with their lives as punishment.
In their first encounter at the bush, God tells Moses, “I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go out except by a strong hand.” Subsequently, as Moses was on the road back to Egypt, “… and I shall strengthen [Pharaoh’s] heart and he shall not send the people. And you shall tell Pharaoh, thus says God: Israel is my firstborn son. And I am telling you, send my son so he shall serve me, and you refuse to send him; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son.” Notice that God’s plan is laid out well in two parts: there is a prediction – Pharaoh will not let the people go – followed by a dire judgment – then I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he cannot let the people go even when he wants to.
Up until the first plague, that of Blood, Pharaoh repeatedly refuses Moses’ plea to liberate the Israelites. “And Pharaoh’s mind was strengthened and he paid them no heed, just as God had said.” Pharaoh has rejected Moses countless times, through signs and wonders, and through seven plagues. The difference this time is the revelation that God has stepped in. Here for the first time, God announces “I have done this.” Up to now, Pharaoh did not need assistance in hardening his own heart. He carries on his escalating stubbornness from the plague of blood until the seventh plague, that of boils. Pharaoh rejects Moses’ please countless times, while he and his nation experience signs and wonders and a series of plagues. Now God informs Moses that God has “made heavy” Pharaoh’s heart.
In the Egyptian religion, the Pharaoh went through a test after death, in which his heart was weighed in a balance against a feather. Purity of soul was the key to Pharaoh’s entrance to the eternal afterlife. If Pharaoh’s heart was heavier than a feather, the afterlife was closed to him for all eternity. The Hebrew verb in the first verse of this reading literally means “to make heavy,” thus “I have made his heart heavy.” Through Divine intervention, Pharaoh loses not merely his kingdom in this world, but his royal access to the afterlife as well.
The first time death is mentioned in the sequence of plagues is when Pharaoh reacts to the plague of locusts. For the first time, he appears ready to repent. “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. Now please forgive my sin this once and entreat God, that God remove from me this death.’ But God reinforced Pharaoh’s resolve and he did not send forth the Israelites.”
Pharaoh approaches Moses with the language of repentance – whereupon God leaps into action to ensure that Pharaoh does not repent, forcing Pharaoh to prolong his cruelty against Israel. By closing off freedom of choice, God takes away the one characteristic which makes Pharaoh human. Why?
The simple answer comes straight from the text: Pharaoh is to be made an example of. At the end of last week’s reading, Pharaoh acknowledged his guilt and conceded the fight. “I have sinned this time: the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the evil ones. Pray to God… I shall send you out.” This is the trigger. Pharaoh remained steadfast. Now, though, he has broken down. In order for God’s plan to be carried to completion, God now takes the reins. And this time, when Pharaoh tries to repent, his plea and his repentance are cut short by God’s heavy hand.
The rabbis consider the power of repentance among the greatest forces in creation, crucial to keeping the world in existence. The Midrash says that repentance had to come into existence before the creation of the world, because God realized that our free choice would lead us to make wrong decisions, to sin unwittingly. Thus, in order not to have to destroy the world, as an expression of God’s utter perfection, God had to imbue the fabric of Creation with repentance. And God also had to be a willing receptacle for that repentance. It is not sufficient for humans to repent; God must also be willing to accept our repentance. God must be able to forgive.
And so we face a dilemma: we must believe that, even for so great a villain as Pharaoh, God’s natural aspect of mercy cannot be shut off. God would need to set aside God’s own qualitie4s of compassion and forgiveness – or God must rip from one human being the ability to repent. Either way, God must effect a fundamental change in the fabric of the very universe God has created: either God must undo the nature of one human being; or we must accept the terrifying alternative, which is that God’s own nature would have to be set aside.
Starting with Eve and Adam, there are many passages where God expresses rage, anger, sadness, displeasure over humanity’s inability to stick to the modes of behavior God has commanded. But not once does God say “I wish I were other than how and what I am.” Indeed, God’s answer to Moses – “I am what I am” – asserts God’s fundamental aspect of eternal unchangeableness. As unpredictable and daunting as this world is, the one thing we humans are told to rely on is that God never changes.
From a human perspective, we deal with a world which is constantly changing, unpredictable, and frequently terrifying. But amidst the unpredictability, there is a dreadful and yet somehow comforting predictability to even the most tragic aspects of life. Death. Disease. Pain arising from other people’s wrong decisions, or from our own. All these are unavoidable. The inevitability of tragedy does not prepare us to deal with it, or even to accept it. But it can push us to appreciate the good things we have, to cherish them while they are ours, and perhaps to be able to relinquish them gracefully when the time comes for us to lose them. Whatever pain we experience, we ultimately can never say we did not expect it.
There is much suffering in life. Much pain which is unavoidable. Pharaoh starts out as a strong leader. His determination to hold onto power is understandable. Perhaps his determination to stand firm for his nation is admirable. At a certain point, though, he goes too far. The punishments are being meted out not against him personally, but against his entire nation. A leader who sacrifices his people for power, for revenge, in anger, is not fit to lead a nation. Such leaders bring disaster, no matter how loudly they proclaim they are acting for their country. Throughout history we see leaders who come to power doing their all for their nation – and end by making their nation suffer merely for them.
Now God performs the most dreadful act of all by un-creating God’s own greatest creation – a human being. In the biblical context, its purpose is plain, which is to force the liberation of Israel, and to become an eternal emblem of God’s might exercised on behalf of the Israelites.
None of us is immune to hubris. To carrying our own program to destructive extremes. The notion of prayer rests on the axiom that God helps us along the way, propels us along the path we choose. Thus, it is critical that we choose the right path. While we may never know for certain, we at least have the ability to watch ourselves, to see the results of our actions, the impact of our behavior. The message of God withdrawing Pharaoh’s free will is likewise: I will help you along the path. In every course of action you embrace with passion, I will propel you forward. Therefore choose wisely, for a cause once set in motion is difficult to reign in.
Put the simplest way I know: It is easier to make a mess than it is to clean it up.
Yours for a better world.