Mayanot Parshat Va'eira: Open Heart Surgery
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Va'eira(Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Open Heart Surgery

Seven of the ten plagues that God sent against Egypt are in this week's Torah portion. The common perception of the purpose of these plagues is that they were sent by God to persuade Pharaoh to release the Jewish people, but the Torah itself offers a different explanation.

"You shall speak everything that I shall command you, and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall put My hand upon Egypt; and I shall take out My legions -- My people the Children of Israel -- from the land of Egypt with great judgments. And Egypt shall know that I am Lord (YHVH), when I stretch out My hand over Egypt; and I shall take the Children of Israel out from among them. (Exodus 7:2-5)

Thus the stated purpose of the plagues is to introduce God -- by His name of YHVH -- to the Egyptians so that Egypt will know when the Jews leave that it was not Pharaoh who let them go, but that God's hand took them out of Egypt.

Later, this idea is stated slightly differently in a passage that warns about the plague against the firstborn:

"For this time I shall send all my plagues against your heart, and upon your servants, and your people, so that you should know that there is none like Me in all the world. For now I could have sent My hand and stricken you and your people with the pestilence and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, for this I have let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world." (Exodus 9:14-16)

God not only wants to introduce Himself, but also aims to establish universal recognition of His uniqueness: "There is none like Me in all the world."

 

* * *

 

TEACHING AIDS

Thus according to the Torah, the plagues are to be viewed as teaching aids. They teach Egypt and the world about God's existence, His uniqueness, and the extent of His powers.

In contrast, the purpose of the three plagues described in next week's Torah portion -- locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born -- are presented thus:

"And so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery out of Egypt and My signs that I placed among them -- that you may know that I am YHVH." (Exodus 10:2)

The purpose of these last three plagues are to teach the Jewish people that God is YHVH, and to give them a story to tell their children -- how God made a mockery out of Egypt for their sakes.

The plagues have different aims vis a vis the Jewish people than the Egyptians and the rest of the world. How can we relate to the significance of this difference?

 

* * *

 

DIFFERENT AIMS

Let us first address the reasons given in our Torah portion. What is the point of teaching the world about God and His power if God simultaneously hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he ignores the information?

More to the point, if God -- who is Omniscient and Omnipotent -- sets out to accomplish something in the world, presumably He knows what He must do to insure that His design is accomplished. Therefore, the knowledge of God introduced into the world by the ten plagues was not meant for one generation of Egyptians or perhaps two. Such knowledge is eternal just as the Torah itself is eternal.

What is the point hardening the Pharaoh's heart?

If so, what happened to this teaching? How come the world is not inundated with the knowledge of God's existence and his powers?

The following analysis is based on the teaching of Rabbi Dessler.

First let us attempt to understand what is meant by the concept of hardening Pharaoh's heart.

New information is often very disconcerting to human beings and tends to upset the delicate balance of free will. Knowledge of an Omnipotent God, Who is capable of altering the rules of nature at His whim, was brand new to the world and to Pharaoh, and it was freshly introduced by the plagues. It must have come as an overwhelming shock to the Pharaoh who declared shortly before:

"Who is YHVH that I should heed his voice and send out Israel? I do not know YHVH, nor will I send out Israel." (Exodus 5:2)

 

* * *

 

LOOKING BACK

To trace the psychological effects of new found familiarity with God we have only to look at how the world reacted to the introduction of the knowledge of El Shadai.

God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am YHVH, I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with my name YHVH I did not make Myself known to them." (Exodus 6:2)

Nachmanides explains:

The name El Shaddai, the aspect under which God interrelated with the patriarchs, represents the aspect of God Who can manipulate nature for the benefit of those He favors. Thus He can grant wealth and success to the patriarchs, make them victorious over their enemies, give them children after a long period of apparent sterility and so on. None of these things are miraculous per se, they merely do not happen very often. They demonstrate that God controls nature, not that He is Omnipotent. They do not indicate that God can totally override natural processes. They merely demonstrate that within the system of nature, He can do as He likes.

The knowledge of the One God was disseminated throughout the world through the efforts of the patriarchs, and the world discovered the fact of El Shaddai's existence through its interactions with them. As we can see by the great respect the patriarchs were treated by all those who came into contact with them throughout Genesis, initially the impact of this knowledge was earth shattering. (Indeed the Torah suggests that it shook the foundations of the world's very first empire, and provided the backdrop to the war described in Genesis 14.) Nevertheless, humanity learned to absorb it in time with equanimity and go on about its everyday affairs as though such knowledge had altered nothing.

Humanity learned to absorb the knowledge of God with equanimity.

After all, God may be in a position to manipulate nature for the benefit of those He favored, but He was a very demanding taskmaster. The rules of nature were there for everybody to exploit as they saw fit. They would work perfectly well without God's favor. There were other ways to manipulate them, no doubt less effective, but free of the need to serve God, and for the most part there was no need for extraordinary Divine assistance, as everything was fine.

The initial impact of the appearance of God was awesome and overwhelming and this awe imposed a restriction on man's ability to act against God, but eventually man lost his awe and recovered the full exercise of his free will. By the time the Jewish people arrived in Egypt, the knowledge of El Shaddai had no deterrent value at all. Pharaoh had no hesitation in imposing his harsh measures against the Jews, although he was no doubt quite familiar with what was known about God from Joseph and from the earlier Pharaoh who had interacted with Abraham.

 

* * *

 

THE NEW NAME

In the same way, the initial appearance of the omnipotent God represented by the name YHVH would have created such a major sense of awe in the heart of man, that his sense of his own insignificance in the face of God's omnipotence would have compelled man to submit himself to God's superior will. It is in this sense that we have to understand the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. This overwhelming sense of awe that should have been the normal consequence of the fresh discovery of the existence of an omnipotent God was taken from Pharaoh. He had the reactions of a person who has lived with this knowledge for so long that it fails to move him emotionally.

The Maharal clarifies this point for us in his work "Nesiv Hatshuva." First he cites this passage from the Midrash:

Rabbi Yochanan said: "This passage allows an opening for the non-believer to claim that Pharaoh was not given the opportunity to repent, as it is written, for I have hardened his heart."

Reish Lakish answered him: "The non-believers should shut their mouth ... God warns a person once, twice, a third time; if he does not repent than God closes his heart so as to be able to punish him for his sin. So also Pharaoh -- after God sent him His emissary five times and he paid no attention, God told him, 'You stiffened your neck and hardened your heart, now I will add [spiritual] uncleanliness to your uncleanliness.'" (Midrash Raba, Exodus 13:3)

Then the Maharal explains:

A person operates on two levels:

 

  1. on the level of emotion and sensitivity, which are qualities of his heart; and

     

     

  2. on the level of cold reason which is a faculty of his brain.

 

God constructed human beings in a way that if they ignore the message of the feelings sent to their brains by their hearts, their hearts will eventually shut down and become numb to the feelings they ignore; and then they are left with only pure reason.

The discovery of the omnipotent God inundated Pharaoh's heart with feelings of awe: "Who am I, a mere puny human to defy the Omnipotent God? What good could possibly come from such a course? Instead of fighting Him, I should surely attempt to bond with such a personage." But once Pharaoh ignored this message of his heart, he became numb to his own sense of awe. He was left to face the quandary of what to do about God's request with his pure reason.

Reason told him thus: "I don't want to free the Jews. Is God a threat my decision? True, he sent some plagues. But He was careful to send plagues that demonstrate His omnipotence without being life-threatening. Blood, frogs, lice are wondrous indeed, but they kill no one. Apparently God wanted to persuade me, not kill me. When I find that He actually threatens me I will reconsider my position, but until such time as He does so, I see no compelling reason to go against my own desire and submit to His will. I do not feel the slightest positive desire to bond with Him at all."

 

* * *

 

IGNORING AWE

The hardening of the heart that Pharaoh experienced is a phenomenon that is part of the natural makeup of all human beings. When we ignore our awe of God and our desire to gain immortality by bonding with God emotionally, our hearts close and our feelings toward establishing a connection with God totally disappear.

What we are left with when we face our moral tests are the powerful feelings that are associated with the satisfaction of our desires against the abstract knowledge of God's will without any accompanying desire to follow it. This unbalanced equation is reinforced by the knowledge that God gave us the free will to act as we like and has no intention of destroying us when we sin.

Wise, balanced decisions require a proper sense of proportion. The proportions of moral decisions are often mapped out by our feelings toward the issues. When the stakes are the maintenance of our relationship with God as against the satisfaction of our earthly desires, and we have become emotionally numb to the importance of our bond with God, it is impossible to reach properly balanced moral decisions. Is it any wonder that the knowledge of God's omnipotence fails to move us?

This emotional numbness to the importance of spirituality is referred to by the Maharal as spiritual uncleanliness, in Hebrew tamey.

When God introduced the knowledge of His omnipotence to the world through the teaching aid of the plagues, He did a good job. It is not the knowledge of God's omnipotence that is lacking in the world. The emotional reaction -- and sense of awe that this information ought to generate -- is the factor that is lacking.

This lack of emotional impact is the chief cause of the skepticism of God's very existence.

In fact, this lack of emotional impact is the chief cause of the skepticism of God's very existence. Looking at the world through the eyes of plain common sense automatically leads one to the conclusion that it must have had an incomparable designer. If common sense rejects the possibility of a plain ordinary wristwatch assembled by chance, it should be utterly nonplused by the suggestion that the enormous complexity of the cosmos is the result of random chance.

The reason that this does not happen is because a person argues to himself thus: "If God really exists as my common sense tells me He must, this information should utterly transform my life. If the world was created, presumably it was done for a purpose and God may want things from me. In that case, I may be living entirely wrong. But if this were really true, how is it possible that I feel so utterly indifferent to this God whom my common sense informs me must be out there? I never feel indifferent to anyone who has the potential to powerfully affect my life and happiness. So if God really designed and created the world, I would surely have strong feelings about God one way or another. Utter emotional indifference is simply not an acceptable option. The whole thing must be an illusion after all."

 

* * *

 

OPENING THE MIND

But people don't understand the spiritual concept of tamey, and they don't know how to open their hearts. The opening of the heart toward spirituality starts with the mind.

To have some idea of how this works let us consider physics. Modern physics has given us many remarkable products that have vastly improved our lives. Whoever uses a computer or undergoes microsurgery guided by laser beams is benefiting from the cutting edge of new scientific knowledge. But one does not feel a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer scope of this knowledge just by taking advantage of its applications.

To be overwhelmed with wonder you have to understand a little physics. As physics is very abstract and complex, the person who is interested in experiencing the emotional impact of its splendors must invest some of his time and energy in learning about it. For somebody who is at all familiar with the knowledge, the experience of using his computer or of being treated with a laser becomes truly awe inspiring. His heart is able to open to the experience itself rather than merely absorbing its benefits.

Israel is told to relate the story of the plagues to its children and grandchildren. They may have benefited from God's demonstration of His omnipotence, but merely enjoying the benefit is insufficient. The human heart rapidly closes to every fresh experience unless the sense of wonder is kept alive in the human mind through understanding and study.

Pharaoh had no desire to dwell on the plagues. He wanted to put the entire painful experience behind him, get rid of the harmful effects, and forget it. But information that is presented to you to enable you to transform your life that you totally ignore turns around to mock you in the end. When others read your story, their main reaction is: What was wrong with that guy? That's what happened to Pharaoh.

That is also God's lesson to the Jews in the beginning of next week's Torah portion.

 

* * *

 

A CLOSED HEART

Because we inhabit a world of physicality and our desires and interests automatically focus on the world we inhabit, spirituality is remote from our hearts. We don't feel comfortable with our own sense of awe of God. To focus on it, we have to detach from the physical world we inhabit and our interest in it. Therefore, instinctively, we close our hearts. This leaves knowledge in our minds that is non-threatening as it moves us not at all.

God tells the Jewish people that the knowledge in their minds will open their hearts.

God tells the Jewish people to focus their minds on the plagues from an early age. Instead of telling children fairy tales, tell them about the Exodus. Make the knowledge of God and His wonders part of the mental furniture with which they grow up. The knowledge in their minds will open their hearts.

For the ultimate purpose of all revelation is to allow man to establish an emotional relationship with God. Information of immense importance that languishes ignored is only a mockery. God wants to teach and elevate, not to mock.

God's purpose in providing the revelations of the plagues was not to bring about the closure of the heart that they caused in Pharaoh, but precisely their opposite. By opening a new window to Divine revelation God was attempting to instill a fresh sense of wonder and awe in man that would form the backdrop to a new bond.

Man could apply the outpouring of feeling provided by this new opening of his heart and add his feelings to his fresh understanding of God's omnipotence and move on to form the bond of Sinai.

Published: January 17, 2001

Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Marilyn Bennnett, January 11, 2013 8:27 AM

You've touched a nerve and given me much to learn. Thank You.

Dear Rabbi Weisz, This commentary is awesome!! You present aspects of "the plagues" not before considered. Thank you for opening up a whole new vision of "hardening of the heart" and what we must do to stay connected to our spirituality and to Hashem. Marilyn Bennett, Jerusalem

(2) Erik H, January 10, 2013 12:52 PM

Great summary

Great points. It sure helped me put together some seemingly puzzling passages. Good reminders for all of us!

(1) Mort Katz, January 1, 2008 5:39 PM

Fantastic

This was done Beautifuly i learned
what it meant to be Jewish.
Thank you

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub