It always happens at this time of the year. As soon as we get into Vaera , my mind is back in the USSR. It’s the phrase “Sh’lach et ami…” — “Let my people go…” that stimulates those memories. That phrase from Vaera, which is the stuff of African-American spirituals and 1960s peace songs, resonated deeply with the Soviet refuseniks that I used to visit in the 1980s. Their hard-hearted government was a Pharaoh of an old-new sort, and that was their cry from the depths of their souls. They quoted it in Russian and painted the Hebrew words on banners that they hung from their windows or held aloft in demonstrations — illegally, dangerously and bravely. I well remember showing them an English poster version in which the capital ‘G’ of ‘go’ was formed to resemble their national symbol of linked hammer and sickle: they squealed with delight.
“Sh’lach et ami…” is the thrust of Vaera, but the parashah is more than an abolitionist tract, and Moses doesn’t even play the human rights card. Rather, his emphasis is on worship and the power of God—a power that, for me, is more evident and more wondrous in God’s approach to Pharaoh than in the plagues, the first seven of which appear in this parashah.
Commentators down the ages have wrestled with the idea of Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened”. Does this mean Pharaoh was deprived of his free will? How can he be held responsible for his actions if his emotions were being manipulated? The key question is: did God eliminate or enhance Pharaoh’s will? One clue might lie in the precise Hebrew words used.
Reading the text closely, we can see that two main verbs are used in relation to Pharaoh’s heart: 1. Kibud—giving weight to, making heavy, adding substance (the same root in other contexts means “honouring”). 2. Hizuk—strengthening, adding courage and determination.
As the plagues progress, it’s interesting to look at the stages where what happens to Pharaoh’s heart is described using each of these words, kibud and hizuk. It’s palpably clear that God is not the sole agent; Pharaoh is also the agent of his decisions and his destiny.
Spoiler alert: God never actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There would have been no point, when God could simply have “zapped” Egypt and whisked the Israelites away. Rather, God strengthens Pharaoh’s heart, encouraging and enabling him to search and find his way, to clarify his vision and perhaps to change his world view.
And that happens for a moment, when the seventh plague brings the impossible combination of opposites: ice and fire. Pharaoh is stirred and awakened to a new realisation: God is right, and Pharaoh and his people have been wrong.
We’ve heard the story and we’ve seen the movies so we know that changes, but the moment is worth holding. If God had “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, it would have stayed hardened.
Pharaoh’s introspection, his change of outlook, his humility, are signs that God has offered him a journey and that this has been a process of self-discovery for him, as it was for Moses and Aaron, for the Children of Israel and indeed for us now.
Paradoxical as it may seem, God who recognises the dignity and intrinsic worth of the Children of Israel and champions their freedom, also recognises the dignity and intrinsic worth of Pharaoh and champions his freedom.
What a God!
Angela Gluck is a member of New London Synagogue.