Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


                My service in the IDF was highly unusual, if not unique.  I began serving when I was 37, and like many of those late comers to the army, I started off as a guard without much responsibility.  However, a couple years into my service the army reorganized the units in Yehuda and Shomron.  So, at the ripe old age of 42, I was transferred into a combat unit protecting the Jewish communities in the Judean Hills.  I became a combat soldier after most soldiers had already stopped doing reserve duty.  Although it was often scary, I enjoyed my military service.  It was an opportunity to mingle with wonderful people with whom I, otherwise, would have never met.  One such individual was Rabbi Ya'akov Medan.  Rabbi Medan was then a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etziyon, now he's one of the Roshei Yeshiva.  I don't know if he remembers me, the American who never knew what he was doing.  But I remember him, the person who was always so sure of himself.  I often disagreed with him when we would have discussions about politics or Palestinians, but I always respected his intelligence and clarity.  Well, he wrote a fascinating article on this week's parsha (http://etzion.org.il/en/i-shall-harden-pharaohs-heart), which presents an intriguing idea that I'm going to share and comment on.

                Reb Ya'akov comments on one of the most famous problems in the story of the Exodus, namely God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart.  Free will is one of the bed rocks of Jewish belief.  We strongly assert that people are responsible for their actions, and that only makes sense if we are in control of our behavior.  So, how could God withdraw Pharaoh's free will and still hold him culpable for his actions?  We could further ask how could Pharaoh still be considered human if he had no control over his actions?  The Rambam (Maimonides, 1140-1204) was especially concerned about this issue.  He based his views about teshuva (repentance) on the fact that we control our actions.  The middle two chapters of his Laws of Teshuva are dedicated to proving that humans have free will.  So, the many verses which claim that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, thus removing his free will, are a major focus of these chapters.  He eventually concludes:  A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing the judgment rendered before the True Judge to be that the punishment of this transgressor for these sins which he willfully and consciously committed is that his Teshuvah will be held back. He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed For these reasons, it is written in the Torah [Exodus 14:4], "I will harden Pharaoh's heart." Since, he began to sin on his own initiative and caused hardships to the Israelites who dwelt in his land as [Exodus 1:10] states: "Come, let us deal wisely with them," judgment obligated that he be prevented from repenting so that he would suffer retribution. Therefore, The Holy One, blessed be He, hardened his heart (Laws of Teshuva, 6:3).  The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) adds that God only hardened God's heart after the first five plagues, giving him ample time to repent before his free will was removed as a punishment for his recalcitrance.

                Here is where Reb Ya'akov begins his clever addition to the position of the Rambam.  Rabbi Medan is concerned about what we learn from this episode.  If God hardens villains' hearts willy-nilly, then all we have is faith in God's application of this policy rather than an understanding of how our behavior should be influenced by these stories.  Isn't the purpose of Torah to guide our actions?  To develop his theory he notices that the Rambam also quotes two other instances when God has hardened our enemies' hearts, specifically Sichon the king of the Amorites (Deuteronomy 2:30) and the Canaanite nations of Israel (Joshua 11:20).  With three examples, Rabbi Medan is able to discern a pattern.  We, the Jewish nation, provided the basis for the bad guys to have hardened hearts.  With Pharaoh, Moshe never pushed him to fulfill his promises of letting us go in the plagues of frogs and wild beasts.  This model was repeated with Sichon and the Canaanites.  Sichon saw that we didn't push our requests to Edom and Moav, and he thought, therefore, that our warnings to him weren't to be believed.  As for the Canaanites, they were hardened against us because of their taste of success at the first battle of Ai, which we lost.  Rabbi Medan's premise is:  the bad guys' hearts are hardened as a result of perceived weakness in us. 

                I think that this is an extremely astute observation.  Of course, Rabbi Medan, because we're supposed to learn from these stories, extrapolates lessons for our present situation.  The Palestinians continue to eschew solutions to the conflict, because they perceive us to be weak.  Why are we perceived as weak?  Because of unilateral displays of vulnerability like the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza.   This modern political application of his clever psychological approach to the hardening of hearts dilemma is ingenious, but I think it's also dangerous.

                Israeli governments must do what they believe is best for Israel and its citizens.  The Palestinian reaction or perception of that policy is just another detail in our decision making process.  Remember, the misreading of our resolve brought about the destruction of Pharaoh, Sichon and Canaan.  I understand and appreciate Rabbi Medan's interpretation of our parsha, but I, respectfully, disagree with his application to our times.

                We must always do what we deem to be in our best interests, and not be overly concerned what the enemy thinks about it.  However, Rabbi Medan is correct when he states that we must be strong in our resolve, but that doesn't mean that we can't be prudent or even compassionate.  Israel and Jews everywhere must be clear that we are here to stay and must be steadfast in our determination to survive and thrive.  This week's story should warn our enemies to be wary of foolish hard heartedness against us.