Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Va’eira 5783

Rabbi Timoner considers the existence of Jewish karma, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and how we can ensure that we don’t turn out like Pharaoh. 


Charlie, you know how to put the pressure on! Jessie and Doug, every parent in this room is feeling for you right now, even if we are dog people.

One of the roles of the darshan is to make Torah come to life and apply it to our concerns in our own age, and you certainly did that. But you didn’t just apply Torah to the pressing question of your own family’s pet ownership, you talked to us about Vladimir Putin and stubborn, violent, tyrannical leadership in our own time. Most of us are not in danger of becoming like Pharaoh or Putin, but I think the Torah is speaking to us about our own hearts and the ways in which we harden or soften, close or open to the needs of others, to God, or to the still small voice that calls us to our best selves. We all have a capacity for heedlessness, obdurance, insensitivity. What are we to learn here about ourselves and our role in making the world more loving and just?

The first thing that Torah seems to be saying to us is that a hard heart has consequences not only for others but also for ourselves. People sometimes ask me if there’s a Jewish idea like karma. There actually is, and it shows up in the first and last of the ten plagues, and in Pharaoh’s hardened heart. It’s called midah keneged midah, or measure for measure.

Think about the first plague. The Nile turns to blood. The Nile is Egypt’s source of life. For seven months a year Egypt gets no rainfall. All water, all food, comes from that river as it regularly floods and waters the earth around it. But then suddenly it is flowing with blood. It stinks, it’s obviously not potable. It will poison all of the crops. Why would that be the first plague? Why would the Nile change from being a source of life to a site of death? If you recall, Pharaoh decreed that all of the Hebrew baby boys were to be thrown into the Nile to die. All Egyptians were ordered to snatch up the children of their Hebrew neighbors and drown them in the river. God’s plague did not transform a source of life into a site of death. God’s plague merely revealed that the Nile had already become a site of death, with corpses at its bottom, the blood was now made visible to all.

Pharaoh hardened his own heart before that first plague ever happened. And then he went on to harden his own heart four more times. And then midah keneged midah, if you harden your own heart repeatedly, your heart will be hardened for you. You will become unable to soften it. If you refuse to change repeatedly, you will become unable to change. What you do has consequences. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is measure for measure for Pharaoh’s own self-imposed hardening

And this brings us, in the end, to the tenth plague. Like the Hebrew baby boys thrown into the river, the firstborn boys of the Egyptians, will die. The Nile’s blood was a warning that the murders of thousands of Hebrew babies are known, they matter, and there will be consequences if Pharaoh does not relent. The last of the ten plagues, after Pharaoh hardened his own heart five times and his heart was hardened by God four more times, is the brutal, devastating, and inescapable consequence. Midah keneged Midah. Measure for measure. What we do in the world comes back upon us.

So how do we avoid this ever being us, even on a less cosmic scale? How do we ensure that we use whatever power we have for good? How do we construct a life that is Pharaoh’s opposite?

The Torah gives us three more bodily metaphors like the hardened heart, things we could pay attention to inside of ourselves to help us be the opposite of Pharaoh. Earlier in the parasha, Moses is afraid to confront Pharaoh. He doesn’t understand how Pharaoh is ever going to listen to him given that his own people, the Israelites, won’t listen to him. He thinks that they won’t listen to him because there’s something wrong with his speech, but the text tells us that they’re not listening to him because there’s something wrong with them. They are, Torah tells us, kotser ruach, crushed of spirit. Their oppression and forced labor has been so severe that they can’t find hope, they can’t take in a message about an alternate future. They can’t risk believing that things could change. They need to be built up again in order to have the possibility of participating in their own liberation. And that is why the Nile turning to blood is so important. It’s an acknowledgement of their loss, their trauma, their children who are no more. It’s an indication that there is justice in the world. That the crimes done to them were not invisible and forgotten. This is the beginning of restoring their spirits so that they can hear and believe in the promises for their own future. Sometimes this happens in our world, and sometimes it even happens to us – that we become so discouraged that we’re inured to messages and signs of hope. We don’t want to risk believing and then having our hopes dashed, so we stay cynical, we keep it cool, or we sit back and watch. We don’t commit ourselves to dream about the way the world could be or to work for that world. This parasha teaches us to acknowledge when our spirits feel crushed and find a way to lift ourselves up, to heal, to restore our strength and our hope, so that we can be participants in changing the world as it needs to change.

So we don’t want a hardened heart and we don’t want a crushed spirit. What else?

Later in Torah, when our people are in the wilderness, they will be called stiffnecked more than once. It means that they’re not listening to God, they’re being stubborn, they’re refusing to change. What does a stiff neck have to do with stubbornness? I think intuitively we know that we armor our bodies by stiffening our neck and shoulders. And if you think about it, if you can’t turn your neck, you’re only looking in the direction you’ve already decided to go, you’re not able to turn your head to the side or look behind you. You’re not taking in other influences, or looking back to where you’ve come from. The Akan people of Ghana have an important symbol called the Sankofa bird, which is a bird that flies forward while looking backward. It has an egg in its mouth that represents the gems of the past that it carries forward into the future. In Torah, Moses tries repeatedly to remind the people where they came from, what journey they’ve been on, to help inform them about how they should live in the future. A flexible neck would allow them to look backward as well as forward. In last week’s parasha, it was actually Moses’s flexible neck that allowed him to become the leader of his people and the greatest prophet of all time. In the famous story of the burning bush, Moses is tending to his flock of sheep in the desert when a bush is on fire. Apparently, bushes would sometimes catch fire in the desert and that wasn’t what was amazing in that moment. What was amazing was that the bush was on fire but was not consumed, meaning that the fire wasn’t burning or charring the leaves and branches of the bush. The Torah specifically tells us that rather than just walking by the bush, Moses turned aside to look. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה Moses said, I will turn aside to look. A stiff necked person wouldn’t have turned their head. A stubborn person would keep going, would not be swayed off course, would not want to be delayed from their objective. But it was in the turning of the head that Moses observed the bush long enough to see that it wasn’t being consumed by the flames and that something extraordinary, something holy, was happening. וַיַּ֥רְא יְהֹוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ And when God saw that Moses turned aside to look, God called to Moses from within the bush, and Moses said Hineni, here I am. This flexibility to interrupt his own thoughts and plans, and instead stop everything to turn aside and pay attention to something wondrous happening outside of him was the prerequisite for Moses hearing God’s voice, and ultimately heeding God’s call to return to Egypt to free his people.

God is asking us, Torah is teaching us to keep our necks flexible, to look backward to remember where we came from and what we learned from our experience, and to take in what’s around us, to be open to wonder, to hear the voices of others, to be willing to find out that we’re wrong, to adjust to new conditions, to different opinions, to needs outside of ourselves, to that still small voice that is always trying to get our attention.

Finally, later in Torah, in Deuteronomy, when Moses is retelling the story of where the Israelites have been and what they’ve learned in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land, he pleads with them in Deuteronomy 10:16 to stiffen their necks no more and to circumcise their hearts, to cut away the thick barrier of flesh over their hearts that is preventing them from feeling. This is the final response to Pharaoh’s hardened heart. The opposite of a hardened heart is a circumcised heart, a heart that is unguarded. The tool for this circumcision is obviously (thankfully) not a knife. It is intention, it is will, it is courage. According to Torah, it is this softened, exposed, vulnerable heart that makes human beings most receptive to God’s call, most attuned to that still small voice, most capable of living a life that is an eloquent response to Pharaoh.

An uncrushed spirit. A flexible neck. A circumcised heart. These are the ideals for a Jewish body and a Jewish life, for a human body and a human life. That we would heal ourselves from trauma and rouse our spirits from despair. That we would listen and look at the world that needs us, for the voices calling to us, for the wonders waiting if only we turn aside to see. That we would repeatedly soften and carve away the hard armor around our hearts, to find the courage to be vulnerable and unguarded as we face the world.

The God of Torah needs human beings. That’s what covenant is all about. We have a role to play in taking down the Pharaohs and the Putins of the world. We have a role to play in modeling a different use of power, a different way of life. We have a role to play in using our bodies as vessels and conduits for freedom, for justice, for healing, for sensitivity, for love.

Shabbat Shalom.