In this week’s Parasha, Va’eira, God gives Moshe a game plan and Moshe pleads with Pharaoh to let his people go. Pharaoh refuses and the plagues begin. I’ve always struggled with the idea that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart:
ט׳:י״ב: וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה
to prevent him from letting B’nei Yisrael leave Egypt. How does this benefit God or the people? While searching for answers, I encountered the idea that “God wants to prove a point.” This is not a sufficient answer for me because it presents God as prioritizing reputation over humanity. Ramban presents the idea that God is balancing the scale so to speak, allowing Pharaoh not to be swayed by the plagues. God wants Pharaoh to make a choice on his own. Shmot Rabba implies that because Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues, he is no longer allowed to repair his relationship with God and let the people go.
These commentaries attempt to resolve the issue of this theological conundrum by rationalizing God’s choice. It seems, however, like we’re asking the wrong question. Instead, I suggest we ask, “What can we learn from God hardening Pharaoh’s heart?” We may never know why God chooses to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but there is definitely a lesson to be learned from it.
This story demonstrates why we can’t wait for God to get involved for us to act. We need to take the initiative from the start. Just as Moshe took matters into his own hands by killing the taskmaster that struck a Jewish man, we can’t wait for divine intervention. As the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “a Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith.”
About a year ago, I served as the Social Action/ Tikkun Olam Vice President of Hagalil USY Northern New Jersey. When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published, it warned of the potentially irreversible effects of global climate change as soon as 2030. We could have just continued with our typical work of planning Shabbatonim and working with chapters, but instead we took a pause. We worked on how to make all of our Shabbatonim more environmentally friendly through sustainability initiatives; led educational sessions on climate change, and started a daily “go green” challenge. These efforts may be small in the grand scheme of the issue but they are the result of taking action. Instead of being passive, we chose to act.
It’s clear that we are living in a difficult time. As Jews and as Americans, we are faced with difficult unprecedented situations. These situations present a choice. Are we going to act or are we going to harden our hearts and hope someone else takes care of it?