Flip-Flopping

We all get criticized for “flip-flopping.” I know I have. Yet this is precisely what Pharaoh does in this week’s portion. On multiple occasions, beginning with the plague of frogs, he says העתירו אל ה,1] “plead before G-d,” to let the plague end. Yet when it does end, at first he hardens his heart והכבד את לבו[2] whereas later on his heart his hardened for him by G-d ויחזק ה את לב פרעה.[3] Why can’t Pharaoh just stay the course and allow Israel to go? Wouldn’t this have made his life far less complicated?

At the end of Parshat Vaera, Pharaoh says one of my favorite lines: ה הוא הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים חטאתי הפעם,, “I have truly sinned this time! G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones.”[4] He begs Moses for an end to the hail. Moses intercedes with G-d causing the hail to end and the rest is the familiar story that you know: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways.”[5]

Why is Pharaoh flip-flopping, saying that Israel can go and then changing his mind? Why couldn’t he have just let Israel go the first time? What’s he afraid of? Why after saying that he’d let Israel go does he relent again and again and again? Is this struggle unique to him or one that each of us shares?

Rashi comments that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the final five plagues is a punishment for the first five, where Pharaoh’s own obstinacy is what led him to refuse to let Israel go.[6] Sforno however offer the opposite interpretation: G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart to restore his free will. After all, the plagues devastating Egypt put Pharaoh under overwhelming pressure to let Israel go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free will but rather under force majeure. G-d therefore toughened and strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so even after the first five plagues he was still genuinely free to say yes or no.[7]

Seforno’s interpretation intrigues me because if Pharaoh really had free will, why in his right mind would he continue to say no to letting Israel go? Was he just “prisoner of the moment,” automatically resisting as soon as there was no plague afflicting Egypt? Was he so dependent on a free, corvee labor force that he couldn’t put his money where his mouth was and risk Israel’s departure? We often say in life “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Perhaps the uncertainty regarding Pharaoh’s release of Israel was a strong enough fear to trigger him breaking his word time after time and causing Israel to be forced to stay.

Rabbi Shai Held writes in his new book The Heart of Torah that “most of us are not Pharaoh; even if in certain situations change becomes impossible, it is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that such cases are extremely rare. Most of us are faced with the daily struggle of exercising our freedom in the midst of very real limitations, not least the limitations we ourselves have created.”[8] I read Rabbi Held as saying that often we resist change because we will need to transcend what we perceive to be our limits. As we know from Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We can exercise our freedom but how will that choice impact our reality?

As counterintuitive as this might sound, I am much more sympathetic to Pharaoh as I get older. I recognize how easy it is to make promises and then retract them as well as how we might feel one thing at a moment of pressing urgency and another when that urgent matter has abated. Thank G-d no one has forced us into slavery or taken away our free will yet in different ways we can feel a similar tension to that of Pharaoh keeping his people free from plague yet concurrently not wanting to let go of his labor force.

Today we are honoring CPAs who have been very hard at work with new tax legislation, trying to advise their clients as best as possible while becoming abreast of the frenetic changes that they will need to implement. We honor them not only for sponsoring today’s Kiddush but more importantly for their hard work and dedication in a challenging profession, as well as for their devotion to the Jericho Jewish Center. We are so proud of the work that they do for JJC, especially our President Richard Cepler, our Immediate Past President Martha Perlson and our Chairman of the Board and fellow Past President Jay Kaplan. Thank you to all our CPAs for being who you are and for leading our congregation forward with strength.

[1] Exodus 8:4

[2] Exodus 8:11

[3] Exodus 9:12

[4] Exodus 9:27

[5] Exodus 9:34

[6] Rashi on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה . In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[7] Seforno on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[8] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion-Genesis and Exodus Philadelphia: JPS, 2017), p. 143.

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The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah

How does one rise to greatness in Judaism? It is not as easy as we might think. Greatness is not based upon pedigree (yihus) but rather upon hard work and merit. We see this through the praise that Jacob gives to his son Judah. He calls him גור אריה, a lion’s cub, says מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the pray.[1] He then says לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[2] Rashi comments that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah, that wherever Jews live the leader, whether a king or resh galuta (exilarch) will descend from Judah.

Why did Judah merit this ascent? To get at that answer we have to go back to Parshat VaYeshev, where Joseph’s brothers want to kill him. Judah craftily says מה בצע כי נהרוג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[4] לכו ונמכרנו לישמעלים וידנו אל-תהי-בו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא, “Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[5]   Here Rashi asserts Judah is saying we won’t receive any profit, any money from killing him, so better to sell him and wipe our hands from his death (presuming he’ll die in slavery in Egypt).[6]

Judah descended even further in the next chapter of Parshat VaYeshev וירד יהודה מאת אחיו going down from where his brothers were at and taking a Canaanite wife.[7] Even Esau knew how bad it was to take a Canaanite wife, and yet Judah did precisely that. He also had relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaims הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[8] He’s quickly ready to do away with the life of a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[9] It is at this point that he begins to ascend through doing תשובה, or repentance, recognizing that the actions that he took were wrong and that it’s time to change course.

Of course the greatest step in Judah’s ascent was in last week’s parsha, VaYigash, where he begged Joseph to spare his brother Benjamin’s life. He states עבדיך ערב את הנער, “I, your servant, has pledged my life for the boy” and ישב-נא עבדיך תחת הנער עבד לאדוני, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[10] Judah has went from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off of which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burned, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the son we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

Normally we think the most righteous are those who are “Frum from birth.” However that’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[11] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the mitzvot or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how observant the person is, on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but rather on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder.

We have seen an example of ascent today through the hard work and dedication of our Bar Mitzvah boy. It was not easy for you to reach this day yet you did it with pride. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a great teacher-your abba-to guide you along the way. Your imma grew in her Jewish understanding, observance and commitment as an adult as many were casting it aside. Your abba came from Russia at a time when Jews had to hide aspects of their religion. Many left Russia with the status of being tinokot shenishbau, uneducated in the beauty of our faith. He has had to work hard, including through service in Tzahal, asking many questions and take steps forward each day in his Jewish learning. Unlike him you grew up in a place where people are proud to be Jewish, embracing our traditions, and ironically in environments like this it can be difficult to continue immersion in Jewish study. I urge you to follow in the example of your parents, putting in the time, effort and mesirut nefesh as you devote yourself to continuing to grow as a Jew.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To celebrate as a congregation, let us turn to Page 841 and read responsively.

[1] Genesis 49:9

[2] Genesis 49:10

[3] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 37:27

[6] Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[7] Genesis 38:1-2

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 38:26

[10] Genesis 44:32, 33

[11] Talmud Berachot 38b