As I’m in NYC this week (well, Brooklyn) visiting family, I think this is an appropriate musing redux to share. I struggle a lot with the idea in Torah that G”d would harden Pharaoh’s heart, thus causing even greater suffering of the Egyptians, and delaying the exodus of the Israelites. In this musing, first written in 1999, and updated in 2005, I explore a possible explanation for G”d’s action. I have to admit, in re-reading it, that I don’t find it an altogether satisfactory explanation, but it is at least something to consider.
Random Musings Before Shabbat – Va’era 5771 (Redux 5759-5765)-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
“Now can I have cake?” says the 3 year old. “No. You didn’t finish what’s on your plate. Cake is for dessert after dinner.” [He eats one elbow macaroni] “Want cake. I’m finished dinner. Can I have cake now?” “You can have cake after dinner-and after you’ve eaten some more. Here, eat this.” [He takes it in his mouth, pretends to chew, then spits it out.] “Finished. I want cake.” “Eat some more dinner.” “Want cake.” “Not until you eat some more of your food.” [He eats another small bite or two, then begins playing with food, throwing it on floor.] “I want cake now. I’m finished.” [Sternly spoken:] “We’re still eating. You have to wait until after dinner for dessert.” “Want cake.” “No! Here, eat this. [feeding him a few vegetables and bites of food. Finally, he begins to feed himself, too.] [A few moments of blessed silence.] “Finished. Cake. Now! I want cake. I want cake. I want cake.” [One parent starts to give in and unwraps the cake and prepares to serve it to him. The other parent says “don’t give in, he’s got to learn. Just ignore him. We try again:] “If you eat some more of your food, you can have some cake.” [He eats one tiny bite.] “Finished. Cake time.” “Not yet.” “You said if I ate my dinner I get cake. I ate it up.” “No cake yet. Stop fussing!” [continued in next week’s parasha.]
The child just does not understand. The children of Israel just did not understand. I think even Moshe and Aharon had a little trouble comprehending. And many who encounter the story of the plagues in Torah don’t understand. But a parent understands. Anything worth getting is worth waiting for. It has to be delivered under the right circumstances. It has to be earned. It has to be meaningful. Few things that are easy to get are all that valuable. (And lest you be tempted to mention things like “goodwill” and other moral and ethical values, feelings, and action, would that all of them would really be that easy to come by.)
Imagine what Judaism might be like today if, after one simple plague, Pharaoh had said “get thee out!” Would we still be thanking G”d quite so much for the effort of freeing us from bondage? G”d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, just as we “hardened our hearts” against an eager little child who wanted cake. Could the child truly understand the specialness of the cake unless he was made to wait for it? Unless he could see that great miracles had to be performed first? What would it mean to act as if we ourselves had come forth out of Egypt, out of bondage, if it happened quickly and with minimal apprarent effort by G”d? (OK, OK, we’d already been in Egyptian bondage for some time, and we had suffered, so freedom would still hold plenty of meaning and value for us. Especially since Gd seems to have forgotten about us for a while. Still, the harder it-that is, our freedom, was to achieve, all the more we might value it.)
The 14 year old in that family, observing the situation related above, remarks that the parents mistake was in putting out the cake where the 3 year old could see it. A good point. But if the goal isn’t known, how hard will one strive toward it? Whether the goal is freedom from bondage or a piece of cake, you gotta know what the goal is to get there. Moshe knows what his dessert is going to be-G”d has already told him. And those enslaved-no matter how crushed their spirits-would hopefully always be aware of freedom, n’est ce pas? Or is the Torah making the point that we had been enslaved for so long, had gotten to so used to it, that we no longer sensed that goal of freedom-that only when we could sense it did we moan loud enough about it for G”d to hear us?)
When the youngster in the story is older, perhaps he’ll read Torah and learn some strategy. Instead of asking for the whole dessert, he could just say “how about letting me go three days away into the wilderness to sacrifice to my G”d?” (He wouldn’t be being any less duplicitous than Moshe was-Moshe knew darn well he wanted cake, er, I mean total freedom from bondage for his people. I jest.)
But was it all theatrics? Did “Gd just want to make a big show of it? (Did G”d even need to harden Pharaoh’s heart? I think it becomes obvious to Pharaoh in time that Moshe is looking for more than a three day sojourn in the park.)
The parents knows that one can eat the cake anytime-before, during, or after dinner. The parent also knows that sometimes children just don’t eat in normal patterns. So what? But the parents make a big show of it. Why? Because, for some reason, children learn from things that seem like a big deal. They learn from exciting, tense, dramatic, entertaining moments. Like Sesame Street. (They also learn from the quiet meaningful moment, as with the late Fred Rogers.) Nothing that comes that easy is that good, is it?
My parents used to name off the subway stations – Atlantic Avenue – Prospect Park – Newkirk – Kings Highway – Avenue U – Sheepshead bay – on the way to “Brighton Beach, last stop!” to get us to finish our food or drink. Always coaxing us to the end of the line-where we can get off the train and start a brand new journey. It was unthinkable to finish before the last stop. (For you New Yorkers, I guess it was what is now the “Q” line.)
And, in some strange, quirky way, that childhood experience, along with ones I have experienced in households with children, help me understand why G”d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and made us gain our freedom from Egypt only when it really was time for dessert. (Or is that desert?)
Those last four nasty plagues have yet to be endured. Tune in next week to see if the child gets his cake at last. We’re still in Manhattan. Across the East River is Brooklyn and freedom. See if we reach Brighton Beach at last.
©, 2010, 2005 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha: