JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 22, 2003 / 20 Nissan, 5763

Passover: Offering sight to the blind

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay My hand upon Egypt; and I shall take out My legions ... with great judgments.

The Exodus narrative contains one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology: How could the Almighty harden Pharaoh's heart -- seemingly take away the ruler's free will -- and then hold him accountable for his actions?

The question contains its own answer in the form of another question: by what rationale did Pharaoh defy the clearly supernatural power that transformed his country, the greatest empire in the world, into a wasteland? Indeed, how could any ruler, no matter how wicked, no matter how obsessed with power, allow his nation and his people to be systematically beaten into ruin? The answer is obvious: He couldn't. At least not indefinitely.

And so it was with Pharaoh. Throughout the first five plagues, through blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, and pestilence, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, steeling himself against the mounting evidence of divine intervention, rationalizing to himself that no single power could truly direct the forces of nature against him.

But finally even Pharaoh's stubbornness reached its breaking point. Boils and fiery hail and locust swarms and palpable darkness proved too much for even Pharaoh's reckless disregard for inescapable reality. Faced with such miracles, such open revelation of divine providence, even Pharaoh's resistance had to buckle.

And so, not to remove but to preserve Pharaoh's free will, providence interceded to harden his heart, to restore a balance of subjectivity before otherwise irrefutable miracles, thereby allowing Pharaoh to choose whether to take heed of all that was happening around him or to continue ignoring and denying the obvious. And as he had hardened his own heart, as he had made himself callous and insensitive to the clearest messages of the divine will, so did he persist in his insensitivity, right up to the moment of his own destruction.

History has proven nothing if not that history repeats itself. And so we find that, upon entering the season of miracles and of our own redemption from the hands of a despotic ruler, we have witnessed the death throws of a modern-day despot, a contemporary tyrant too stubborn to recognize the hopelessness of his plight, too arrogant to concede the inevitability of his fate, too wicked to turn back from the abyss rather than take many thousands of his own people with him to oblivion.

How could he not have seen the writing on the wall? Perhaps here too the hand of Providence intervened, hardening the heart of the dictator who made a career of hardening his own heart. Is there not in the events of today the unmistakable echo of this same season in times long past? Yet Iraq's modern-day Pharaoh is not the only one who could not see, whose heart resisted reason. Onlookers throughout the world rose to his defense and cried out in the name of an impossible peace. Just imagine if we were enslaved by Pharaoh today what these voices would have been saying: Innocent Egyptians are dying in the plagues. Let's negotiate with Pharaoh, and give him more time to grant concessions. By what right do we dare rise up and assert ourselves against the status quo?

In fact, the Talmud records that four out of five Jews chose to remain in Egypt, forgetful of the slavery and oppression that had gone before, naively hopeful that a reformed Pharaoh would deal with them more kindly than he had for generations. Abdicating their part in the divine mission of their people, they remained in Egypt. And so they were buried there, victims of their own folly, martyring themselves for future generations to learn from the blind, irrational hope that led them down the path of self destruction.

As the earth wakes from its wintry slumber, the season of Passover offers us the same opportunity for renewal that it offered our ancestors 3,315 years ago. And as the days grow longer and brighter, as we wipe the torpor of winter from our eyes, we have a chance to look at the world anew, to see with unclouded vision, to think with unfuzzied minds, to crack the layer of frost that has hardened around our hearts. Now is our greatest opportunity to approach life with an eagerness and an enthusiasm that will take us forward into the future, and also back to reconnect with the past, to free ourselves from the slavery of cultural myopia and recognize the daily miracles of our lives and recall the higher purpose that defines us as a people.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis. To comment, please click here.


© Rabbi Yonason Goldson