Mark Burger, 24 Tevet 5754 (January 7, 1994)
Adonai is all-powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing. Yet, without the willingness of Israel to love and obey Adonai, the Covenant is not complete. Adonai must play out this tension for every generation: casting out Adam and Eve, commanding Noah to build an ark, Abraham to leave home, Sarah to have a child at age ninety, Isaac to be a sacrifice, Rachel to steal, Jacob to fight with himself and Joseph to say whatever is on his mind, regardless ofconsequences.
The tension continues as Adonai destroys cities or a world, defeating kings and armies, or terrifying less threatening kings, such as the hapless Abimelech, who lusted after Sarah and Rebecca. Through all this, Adonai establishes a family, then a people for the Covenant. As we come to Exodus, the time has come for Adonai to forge a nation.
Adonai has the challenge of how to make Egypt realize the folly of holding Israel without obliterating the enslavers. Adonai said that Egypt will be made an example of before the world. But, Egypt is a special case. Joseph was sent there and became the most powerful man after Pharaoh. Jacob took his family there and establishes Israel as a numerous people. Generations of relative peace and four centuries of bondage could not be easily liquidated. Israel invested blood, toil, tears and sweat in Egypt. In spite of the Hardship and brutality, close bonds developed. Israelites lived among Egyptians. When Israel left to go into the wilderness, Egyptians gave Israelites valuables upon mutual agreement for services rendered. There was likely some degree of intermarriage, as so-called 'mixed multitudes" went into the wilderness among Israelites.
There was the heavy price that Egypt had to pay. Two horrible ways of destruction, death of the first born, and the drowning of the pursuing army in the Sea of Reeds. Yet, one of the most significant midrash ever written was when the Egyptians drowned and Israel rejoiced, the angels sang in heaven. Adonai cried out "My Handiwork lies at the bottom of the sea, and you dare to sing!?" No, wiping out a foe will be not enough to sustain the Covenant this time. Adonai will show some compassion for Israel's enslavers.
While Adonai told Moses that freeing Israel will be achieved by hardening or stiffening Pharaoh's heart, it could not be a completely foregone conclusion. We are taught that the gates of repentance are always open to anyone, Jew or non-Jew. There had to be an opening even for Pharaoh. It just had to be a tiny crack. And Pharaoh, predisposed to his decision to hang on to the Israelites, was not going to take advantage.
The Plagues that began in this Torah portion were the forerunners of the term "measured response". The plagues of Adonai were masterpieces of psychological as well as physical warfare. The elements of tension heightened steadily in Egypt. Moses' first call for liberation was met bv Pharaoh with disdain and more repression heaped on Israel. The first plague, the turning of the Nile into blood, was copied by Pharaoh's magicians. Pharaoh's heart stiffened, and the Egyptian price of scurrying about for water was relatively light. Pharaoh was going to hunker down.
Then Adonai caused swarms of frogs to come out of the Nile. This was psychologically upsetting as well as,physically damaging. For the irony was that Adonai made the Nile, source of life to Egypt, a source of misery. And, according to Rabbi Plaut, Adonai made the frog, considered by Egyptians to have life-giving powers, the conveyor of misery. And the frogs go to Pharaoh's doorstep, getting in his face, so to speak. Adonai not only gets Pharaoh to the hop, the hop comes to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh is thrown for a loop. The magicians are unable to respond. But Pharaoh rushes to meet Moses and Aaron only to negotiate, not bow to the inevitable. Pharaoh will let Israel go tomorrow if the frogs are removed today. Moses conveys the request to Adonai, Who causes the frogs to die out all over Egypt in heaps, leaving a very unpleasant calling card.
But, Pharaoh, with the stench of rotting amphibians in his nostrils, "becomes stubborn". This is specifically translated as Pharaoh making the choice. Before and especially afterward, translations like "heart was hardened","heart was stiffened" gave the impression that Pharaoh was an instrumentof Adonai. Other commentary describes Pharaoh as having the freedom to act on his own during the first five plagues. The heart hardening or stiffening was selfimposed. But Pharaoh uses this flexibility only for wiggle room; to be slick, to stall and negotiate, cheat and retreat. He was slick all right, a descendant of the Pharaoh, who, in the beginning of Exodus, enslaved Israel by "dealing shrewdly with them".
Further plagues take place; lice and swarming insects. Pharaoh still tries to maneuver, but by now Adonai clearly hardens his heart in time for the really serious plagues to occur: slain livestock, bolls, hall, locusts, darkness and, finally, death of the first-born. Nor more tricks for Pharaoh, no more magicians to bail him out or even to permit him to save face. Egypt is in ruins, and Pharaoh not only consents, he orders Israel out, a final shred of despotic conceit.
In these past few years, we have seen many Pharaohs fall. Many of these endings were relatively peaceful-f, some were violent. One would have expected an era of peace and cooperation in the world. But there is resurging tyranny, bigotry and xenophobia in too many places. Pharaohs still control Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and thirst for another Holocaust in Europe and Asia. Pharaohs wreak havoc in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia. Pharaohs terrorize Chicago, Beirut and Belfast. Most of these Pharaohs use violence and double-talk, demonstrate great instinct for spotting weakness for authority, say no to letting people go. Measured responses become meager responses, without the resolve of or faith in Adonai.
Sometimes Pharaohs stop by taking advantage of that tiny crack in the gate to avoid oblivion of their followers and themselves. But too often, they sneer at that crack of light and pursue their madness. Then it is up to the rest of us to have the resolve of Moses, and faith in Adohai and the Covenant, get Pharaoh to the hop and do our part to let people go. Amen.