Thursday, January 26, 2017

Va'era: When God is hard within us

The Maor Eynaim (in his commentary on Brachot) says,
האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו, כך מתראה למעלה: אם בגדלות הוא, מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה
“A person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of aggrandizement (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.”

At the beginning of our torah portion, Moses is hesitant to appear before pharaoh. To reassure him, God tells Moses what will happen when Moses speaks to pharaoh. And God tells him, now, before Pharaoh has done anything, before Moses has even spoken to Pharaoh, before a single plague descends, that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply signs and wonders in Egypt.  

What most of us don’t realize is that God doesn’t actually harden pharaoh’s heart  until after the sixth plague – next week, actually- when the Torah finally says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Many of the commentaries on this Torah portion reflect on the problem of Pharaoh's hardened heart. Some, on the troubling implication that if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, is there such a thing as free will or the possibility of repentance? Others focus on the two main characters who reflect opposite traits: Pharaoh is the arrogant king, full of pride; Moses is the hero, humble and reluctant. But both of these ways of looking at the story take for granted a particular view of the back and forth in the narrative over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: that Pharaoh’s behavior is worse as he goes along.
And while most commentaries do accept this way of looking at the story, I stumbled across a comment by Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), the Hatam Sofer that completely changed the way I saw the story.  He writes that until the sixth plague, all the plagues and warnings had had no effect because Pharaoh was so deeply involved in his own sin of pride… but with the last plagues, we are told that God hardened his heart, and that that was a sign that God was with Pharaoh. 

The Hatam Sofer is paying very close attention to the language at the end of our portion and the beginning of next week’s. He notices that at the very beginning of next week’s Torah portion, God announces to Moses that he has made Pharaoh’s heart heavy (10:1) and that this follows closely the end of this week’s portion, in which Pharaoh admits the possibility that he might not be doing the right thing. Pharoah says (9:27), “This time I have sinned, God is the Righteous One, and I and my people are wicked.” Although after the plague of hail and rain, Pharaoh one more time strengthens himself against God, the crack has appeared, and God is able to enter his heart. 

It is only now that a change occurs. To stress the point:
Pharaoh isn’t getting worse – this is where he gets better. Until the sixth plague, the aggrandizement, the gadlut, in his heart has crowded out all else. But suddenly, God is able to enter, and that is when the possibility of pressuring Pharaoh to change begins to be possible. When the Torah tells us that God hardened pharaoh’s heart, it shows us that God is in pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh can no longer keep God out entirely - Pharaoh’s admission that he is in the wrong has made room for God and for change.
The late medieval midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni suggests that this is the beginning of a radical shift in Pharaoh. It describes what happens to him after his downfall at the crossing of the sea: he is sent to Nineveh, Assyria, to become its ruler. He is still there when Jonah arrives to foretell their doom, and it is for this reason that Nineveh repents immediately, and is saved from destruction[i].

We are all the heroes of our own little stories. Even the very powerful spend their time worrying how they will be perceived. They arm themselves with pride and honor – they make their hearts – as the Torah describes pharaoh – kaved – heavy, which has the same root as kavod, honor. They fill themselves up so nothing else can get in, and that makes it difficult for them to change their path, to do right after doing wrong. Pride and arrogance tell them that they can’t show weakness, and thus cannot change their path.  But until they do, until WE do, nothing new can come in.

The context of the words of the Meor Eynaim is this:  when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum (contracted Godself) to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

This reminds me of the words of the American Christian theologian Anne Lamott, who spoke about a time when she broke down in grief long overdue, and how that grief helped her realize that it’s okay not to be whole in and by yourself. She said, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

Pharaoh, too, had to be broken open so that he could allow something in besides himself. But it isn’t only rulers who often can’t see beyond themselves. We, too, each of us, often get “filled up” with our own worries and preoccupations, and it prevents us from seeing the world and its needs. It is only when we allow into ourselves a crack of something that is not-us that we begin to walk the road to redemption.

[i] ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת שמות רמז קעו

דבר אחר בו בלשון שחטא בו בלשון עשה תשובה, הוא אמר מי ה' מי כמוכה נאדר בקדש והצילו הקב"ה מבין המתים והעמידו לספר כח גבורתו שנאמר ואולם בעבור זאת העמדתיך והלך ומלך בנינוה וכששלח הקב"ה יונה לנינוה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מעל כסאו וקרע את בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר ולאחר מ' יום שבו למעשיהם הרעים ונבלעו כמתים בשאול תחתית שנאמר מעיר מתים ינאקו, לא ידעתי את ה'

No comments: