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January 15, 2021
2 Sh'vat 5781
Parashat Vaera
Exodus 6:2 - 9:35

Dear Friends,

Last week, we examined what makes a good leader, as we were introduced to Moses on the beginning of his journey to becoming the leader of the Jewish people. 

This week our attention is drawn to the worst kind of leadership as embodied in Pharaoh. His actions make clear that the people he leads have little or no bearing on the decisions that he makes.

In his essay on this week's Torah portion, Rabbi Shai Held writes that freedom needs to be cultivated and questions when character is destiny. Vaera is the story of the first seven plagues descending upon Egypt. One of the key questions that our sages have raised about this story is to what degree did Pharaoh have agency in his decision making process, given that by the seventh plague God had hardened his heart.

Rabbi Held begins his essay with one of my favorite verses in the Torah: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 3:19)

This verse puts forward the notion , key to Jewish thought and belief, that as human beings we have freedom and with that freedom comes responsibility. We have free will and our actions are our choice. According to Maimonides, “without a robust conception of human freedom the whole idea of moral responsibility collapses into incoherence.” Where would we be if our course was decided at birth? There would be no freedom, no moral responsibility, and with no more responsibility , no Judaism.

With this in mind, how do we contend with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart through the plagues, especially since God forewarns Moses that this is going to happen? (Exodus 7:1-3)

Let's keep our focus on Maimonides and his deep argument that free will is essential to Jewish thinking. He makes the following argument that is essential in understanding what kind of despot Pharaoh is. According to Maimonides, his pattern of behavior is ingrained and habitual; he can no more change the pattern of his behavior than a leopard can change his spots. And until this point, it has served him well. He is incapable of repentance or admitting he is wrong. When the text tells us that “God hardened his heart," he reaches the point of no return. His punishment is that change is impossible. Maimonides contends that Pharoah's situation is the worst case scenario and not true for the rest of us, who always have the road open to repentance.

Psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “Every evil act tends to harden a man’s heart, that is, it deadens it. Every good deed tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom does he have to change, the more is already determined by previous action.” That pattern of behavior leads to a point of no return - a hardened and deadened heart.

Pharaoh is the paradigm of an individual with a great deal of power and freedom without any sense of obligation or responsibility. Pharaoh is an extreme case. He is here to teach us that our actions matter, that they have consequences, and that patterns of destructive behavior become ingrained and lead to destruction.

This Torah portion is a timely reminder that our choices matter and that our freedom is not absolute. Our free will comes with the power to impact others; it also comes with the obligation to be mindful of how we express that free will. Rabbi Held writes that “mindfulness and constant exquisite attention are necessary for freedom to flourish.” This mindfulness is part of our spiritual journey and it is ongoing. The obligation is just as true for us individuals as it is for the leaders we empower.


Wishing all of you a Shabbat of Peace,

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, June 15 2021 5 Tammuz 5781