VA-AYRA (Exodus VI, 2 – end of IX)
Today’s parsha, whose theme is God’s renewed promise of redemption, opens with the well known words “God spoke to Moses and said to him: I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai.” And the text goes on to tell us that God said that he has heard the moaning of the Israelites, and has remembered his promise to them, and will rescue them from the enforced slavery to the Egyptians.
Put into context, this opening statement of reaffirmation follows on the previous parsha that ended with Moses complaining to God that he had been sent in vain, for instead of helping the people, the situation since Moses arrived to lead the people to freedom has only deteriorated.
God responds forcefully by saying – O.K. - just watch me now.
The text is worded with masterful rhetoric - instead of simply saying something like
“I will make sure that the people are released from slavery,” or, perhaps more strongly, “I will save the people from the cruelty of the Egyptians”, we are told of how he intends to rescue them – described in 4 progressive levels of redemption and in strong and beautiful language
(chapter 6, verse 6, 7).
1. I will bring you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt
2. I will deliver you from their bondage
3. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements
4. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.
Thinking of these levels of deliverance, I couldn’t help but reflect on Abraham Mazlow’s famous hierarchy of needs – his model of wholeness in the shape of a pyramid, and his theory that people must have basic needs fulfilled in order to aspire to higher ones. Maslow suggested that lower unfulfilled needs inhibit an individual from climbing to the next step.
For those of you unfamiliar with Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs, or who need a quick refresher course on it – Mazlow conceived of human needs in the shape of a pyramid, with the
physiological or survival needs at the bottom – the need for air, food, water, clothing, shelter, sleep.
Once these needs are taken care of, one can concentrate on the second level up, the need for safety and security.
Next come the social needs - for love, belonging, acceptance.
And then the need for esteem - respect, recognition, sense of accomplishment & self-worth.
Finally, we have the need for self actualization at the top of the pyramid - the need for fulfillment, for realizing one’s own potential.
Comparing Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs to the Israelites in Egypt, we see that they could not really think about freedom from slavery when they had to worry about where they were going to get the straw to make the bricks. How could they think of being an independent nation when they were kept busy worrying about what they were going to eat. Moses came with a great promise of redemption, of freedom, of possession of a land, of the creation of a people – but this wasn’t where the people’s needs were at.
Looking more deeply in to the rhetorical language of the promise of redemption, with Mazlow’s model in mind, we see that –
I will bring you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt, or as has been translated in Etz Hayim, I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians, indicates that the first step will be the freeing of the people from physical enslavement, from hard labour.
The next step is the deliverance from bondage, or what has been considered from psychological enslavement – the people, even after being freed by the Egyptians, would have the mind-set of slaves, from which they had to be delivered. They had to understand that they were now safe and secure – they did not have to fear violence by the Egyptians if they did not continue their impossible tasks.
Next, the promise is to redeem the people “with
an outstretched arm and with great judgements” - the outstretched arm creating
the image of both strength and protector. Etz Hayim tells us that when the people are redeemed, they will
be able to think of themselves as free. They will no longer have to be passive
and obey their masters. Only a free person can think of social needs such as of belonging, of
love of others, and of self esteem.
And lastly, the promise that “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God” refers to the special relationship with God which is the ultimate goal of the redemption. Spiritual fulfillment would fit well at the top of Mazlow’s pyramid, as part of what he called self actualization, or fulfillment.
Mazlow’s thinking was for his time (1950’s) quite original. But apparently his inspiration for the idea of the pyramid came from his visit to the Great Pyramids of Egypt – making this a particularly relevant model to discuss today, considering that the Israelites in the today’s parsha were the ones who actually built these same pyramids that inspired Mazlow.
I would like to now turn to the line that first appears in chapter 7, verse 3, and that keeps echoing throughout this week’s text: ”And I will harden Pharaoh=s heart.”
We find this a confusing, disconcerting concept, as this is not in keeping with our fundamental Jewish belief in freedom of will. Nor does it sit well with us that our God of justice would do this – it would be morally wrong for God to actually cause someone to be evil, and to therefore cause a person to inflict pain on others. Many commentators try to understand and explain what is meant.
Before getting into some of the interesting psychological interpretations offered to us, we can reasonably consider that perhaps it is just the oratory of a good writer or speaker – it is more interesting when one tries to say the same thing in different ways so as not to be too repetitive. This line is repeated each time that Pharaoh calls for the end of a plague -- God removes the offending problem, and then Pharaoh reneges – and so the words are repeated, but the order of the words change. The sentence is at times flipped around. And in so doing, the blame is not always put on God for Pharaoh’s stubbornness but it is sometimes put squarely on Pharaoh himself.
Although it does say – ”And I will harden Pharaoh=s heart”, another time the text reads -- “Pharaoh hardened his heart,” and yet another time it says --“And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the Children of Israel go.”
In some cases, different translations are provided by different translators. Although the English in both Etz Hayim and Herz chapter 7, verse 3 says “And I will harden Pharaoh=s heart”, Silberman, in his Pentateuch with Commentary of Rashi, gives the translation “And I will allow Pharaoh’s heart to harden.” Like looking into a kaleidoscope, the meaning begins to shift little by little, until the picture is not the same.
Some commentators, assuming that the hardening of the heart was in fact God’s doing, try to explain why he would do such a thing, and tell us that it was necessary in the grand scheme of things for Pharaoh to refuse to let the people go, as it had to be clear to the people, and particularly to the Children of Israel, and to all of history, that freeing the people was God’s doing, and was not done through the generosity of spirit or goodwill of Pharaoh. There could be no misunderstanding of just how divine an act it was.
As we read in chapter 7, verses 4 and 5, “When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will deliver my people from bondage, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth My hand against Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.@ It is made clear the reason for prolonging the series of plagues is not to secure Israel=s release, which might have been achieved by one crushing blow but to establish for all time the fame of God and folly of defying Him.
Another justification that I read arguing that it was OK for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart was that since it is unacceptable for one person to reduce another to slavery, it was justifiable for God to punish Pharaoh by hardening his heart, and thereby ensuring his downfall.
Herz, who is quick to defend God, and to ensure that we don’t think ill of God’s motives or intentions, and certainly think of God as “hardhearted”, explains that this phrase does not mean that God caused Pharaoh to sin, but that Pharaoh hardened his heart himself. Herz goes on to say that with each repetition of Pharaoh’s refusal, he became more hardened. Herz tells us: Such is the law of conscience. Every time the voice of conscience is disobeyed, it becomes feebler, and the heart grows harder.
There is great psychological insight in this analysis.
Isn’t it true that it is easier to do something bad the 2nd time around, whether it involves stealing something, telling a lie, cheating in an exam? After all, we already did it once, and it worked. The world didn’t come to an end. It was a successful means to an end. There is perhaps less guilt the 2nd time round. And the fear of getting caught is diminished. We already got away with it one or more times. One’s skill at doing the wrong is improved, facilitating the process the next time around.
And in speaking about such behaviour, we too use the language of an external, rather than internal force to explain this phenomenon. We say, in the case of such a person, that he has become immune to the hardship that he has caused, that he is not sensitive to the wrong that he is doing, that his heart has become hardened.
We will return to Mazlow to pull together the 2 apparently unrelated themes that I have spoken about – the progressively higher and more complex needs and freedoms, and the puzzle of whether our behaviour is preordained or whether we have free will.
Mazlow was a leader of what was called the humanistic school of psychology, developed as an alternative to behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic psychologists believe individuals are controlled by their own values and choices – by free will -- and not by the environment, as behaviourists think, or by unconscious drives, as psychoanalysts believe.
So Mazlow would have argued that a “hardened heart” is a result of free will.