By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
In this week’s parasha Va’eira we read of the first five plagues brought down upon Egypt. Who needs Christmas in July when we can have the Passover Story in December, right? With each plague, we get closer to redemption, and yet we simultaneously read that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I’ve always found this really troubling. Far be it from me to limit G-d’s ability, but how can I fully blame Pharaoh for our suffering if it was G-d that hardened his heart? As one who dabbles in creative writing, I understand that I’ve allowed and even encouraged poor behavior of my characters in order to illustrate a lesson or build the conflict–it wouldn’t be a compelling narrative if it was all easy. However, in the grand story of life, and the story of our people, can I dare to hold the Author accountable?
It’s a reasonable question, and none of us are inherently heretics for asking it. Maybe it was a necessary step in solidifying the faith in G-d as our redeemer. Maybe it was all part of the divine recompense due for years of slavery that occurred prior to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I’m actually less concerned with why G-d did that, and more interested in whether G-d still does it from time to time.
Has G-d hardened my heart? Or yours? Did we know when it was happening? How did it affect us? And, as someone who believes in free will, could we have refused?
Reading about the plagues hits differently than it used to. Now that we’ve spent nearly 2 years in a plague of our own, I’ve had some difficult questions. Is this a divine punishment? Do I really believe in that? What did we do, and how can we fix it? Is this meant to teach us something? Did we learn it? Have we forgotten the lesson already? And how are our hearts doing? Are they hardened by a stubborn desire to return to normal? I know folks who are so done with masks, but with a new variant that spreads quickly, we simply aren’t done yet. I know folks who won’t get vaccinated. Have their hearts been hardened by systems that leave them unable to trust in institutions?
And perhaps I’m optimistic, but maybe this is just how redemption works. Maybe these challenging times–these plagues–are meant to give us a needed shift in perspective that only radical change can provide. And some of us will pivot, and grow, and be redeemed. Others will harden their hearts, and let the sea consume them. My prayer for all of us as we continue navigating this plague, is that we continue to reflect on the world around us, allow our hearts to remain soft and open, and do everything we can to be G-d’s partner in the redemption that surely awaits us on the other side of this pandemic.