D’var on Parshat Va’era
Background: God has finally heeded the cries of the Israelites and calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Moses is the reluctant advocate but teams up with Aaron, and after God tells Moses the script of how God is going to direct the action, we see the play unfold.
Shmot 4:21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your powers. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go”
Many of the commentaries discuss whether or not Pharaoh had free will. And if not, how can we blame Pharaoh if God was pulling the strings all along?
Some essays even say that the audience for the marvels and the plagues was the people of Israel who, at that stage in their developing relationship with God, needed the highest degree of awe to trust Moses’ God-given powers and to free them from the mindset of slavery.
My response to the story is based on my personal experience as an environmental health and political advocate dealing with people in positions of power.
I recognize both Moses and Pharaoh. The dynamic is familiar. They are both products of a society, of a culture full of pain and inequities, on the cusp of major social and economic upheaval.
In fact, the contest was really only about who was more powerful, Pharaoh or God? It was not about the morality of slavery. Even the killing of the first born babies of the Egyptian is a show of God’s power. I worry about the lessons we are supposed to learn if power and not justice determines the winner.
In a search for some clarity, I was delighted to find a 2009 essay titled Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart – and Does it Still? By Rabbi Arthur Waskow (The Shalom Center)
Wascow looks at the story of Pharaoh’s hard heart as “Perhaps the greatest archetypal tale in all of human culture about addiction to top-down, unaccountable power – and the path it shapes to self-destruction…”
He writes, “We have seen, are still seeing, this tale lived out before our own eyes. For eight years, the government of the United States became so addicted to its own power, so swept away by its own arrogance, that it played out in the tale of Pharaoh and brought disasters on the very country that it claimed to lead, as well as on the wider world…”
And.., “there are still Pharaohs blocking the way to a “promised land” of justice and sustainability…”
…”Heard through 21st-century ears, the Plagues that beset ancient Egypt in the Torah’s story of liberation from Pharaoh are ecological disasters. (Exod. 7:13 to 11:10). … The rivers become undrinkable, locusts consume the crops, a climate disaster of unprecedented hailstorms assails the country, mad cow disease descends upon the herds, a sandstorm of impenetrable darkness - a darkness you could actually feel, not only see - holds prisoner the land and its inhabitants.”
…All brought on by Pharaoh’s stubbornness, his arrogance, his dependence and insistence on horse-chariot armies to subdue other peoples abroad and slave-driving overseers to subdue workers and ethnic minorities at home.”
In presenting the major outline of the story Wascow focuses on the psychology of power and asks “Why did Pharaoh act in such self-destructive ways?”
And I add: Why do our leaders today act like Pharaohs? And how do we as advocates, seekers of peace, activists for justice and ecological health and sustainability succeed against these modern Pharaohs to prevent the self-destructive consequences that are beginning to engulf us?
Wascow writes: “Only the deaths of all of Egypt’s firstborns push [Pharaoh] over the edge into ordering the Israelites to leave – notice that he orders them, rather than permits them – and even then, when he awakens in the morning to see his land devastated and his economy torn to shreds, he cannot bear his humiliation, his powerlessness. He orders his army to re-enslave the departing Israelites. He and the Army end up drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
Wascow asks: Why does God intervene to harden, toughen, stiffen Pharaoh’s heart? At those late moments in the story, what has happened to “free will”?
Wascow suggests that like a heroin addict – the first or fifth or tenth dose may be an act of free will…But at some point, Reality (call It “God” if you like) takes over. The body has so deeply responded to these acts of free will that it loses its freedom.
“And this is what happens to Pharaoh. He chooses hard-heartedness so often that he loses his ability to choose.
He – the most powerful man in the world — has lost his freedom in order to deny freedom to those he has enslaved. The heart that he himself has chosen to harden, he becomes unable to soften. – For God, Reality, begins to harden his heart. Addiction takes over. The most powerful army, the most brutal police cannot save him: indeed, they are exactly what destroy him.”
Wascow continues: “There is a teaching, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Torah teaches, ‘Absolute power addicts absolutely – and self-destructs absolutely.’”
“And this is a warning to all leaders and peoples, not a mere historical chronicle but an archetypal tale of what happens when top-down, unchecked power becomes not an instrument for change in the service of life but an addiction.”
Wascow then asks: “Who and what today are the institutional pharaohs that are bringing plagues - ecological disasters – upon the earth, and serfdom - economic disasters - on the people?”
In a December 2013 essay, “Do we need to rename God?” Wascow concludes: “For us, it means both resisting the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing new Plagues upon our planet; and shaping a new society in which we are constantly aware that all life is Interbreathing, that we are interwoven with the eco-systems within which we live –- that indeed,YHWH, the Breath of Life, is ONE…
Like Moses, I know that many of us are reluctant advocates, and yet, especially as parents and grandparents, we feel an urgency to act, to take responsibility to challenge the forces that seem so short-sighted, so self-destructive, not just to us, but to everyone.
To quote my hero Rachel Carson, who as a scientist and an advocate calls us to work for sanity, public integrity, health security and human rights…
“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
I am grateful to Rabbi Arthur Wascow for framing the problems of addiction to power and its self-destructive consequences.
From hard hearts to strong hearts. So as advocates, if not leaders, I know that, in spite of the odds, our strength to stand up to today’s Pharaohs comes from our commitment to
- show up
- speak up
- look up
- team up
- never give up
- lift up others
Many of us are concerned about social and economic injustice, environmental disaster, water and air pollution, food security and food quality….
- My questions for discussion are:
- What can we learn from the ancient story?
- What are our inner and outer Pharaoh’s – addictions, obstacles and barriers?
- What is our power?
- Are we doomed or do you think can win?
Reading following discussion: A Prayer for Social Action by Jack Reimer
We cannot merely pray to God to end war; For the world was made in such a way That we must find our own path of peace Within ourselves and with our neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to God to root out prejudice; For we already have eyes With which to see the good in all people If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation; For we already have the resources With which to feed the entire world If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to God to end despair; For we already have the power To clear away slums and to give hope If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to God to end disease: For we already have great minds With which to search out cures and healings If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray instead For strength, determination, and will power, To do instead of merely to pray
To become instead of merely to wish; That our world may be safe, And that our lives may be blessed.
The Shalom Center, https://theshalomcenter.org/, Rabbi Arthur Wascow
TEDTALK: Paul Piff: Does money make you mean? It’s amazing what a rigged game of Monopoly can reveal. In this entertaining but sobering talk, social psychologist Paul Piff shares his research into how people behave when they feel wealthy. (Hint: badly.) But while the problem of inequality is a complex and daunting challenge, there’s good news too. (Filmed at TEDxMarin.) Paul Piff studies how social hierarchy, inequality and emotion shape relations between individuals and groups.
Enemy of the People, play by Henrick Ibsen
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson