Pharaoh Phone Home

Parashat Va’era

It is truly a horror of war to see seemingly innocent people injured or worse as result of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong leadership. As the Arab spring warms up, we see that a few dictators, unrelenting in their brutal subjugation of their own citizens, respond with wanton brutality, leading to the death of thousands of innocent people .But, we are not surprised. In Syria, Bashar Al-Assad has killed more than 5000 of his own people. The apple does not fall far from the tree. In 1982, his father Hafez Al-Assad killed over 25,000 citizens of the city of Hama, and tens of thousands of other innocent Syrians.

In the midst of this genocidal fever that has been burning in the  Middle East for years, and the attacks against the Jewish homeland by groups that demand its complete destruction, Israel faces a media war, that attempts to equate defensive maneuvers with wanton oppressive violence.

We still remember clearly the invasion of Gaza a few years ago, to stop random rocket attacks on Israeli population centers. It was a most challenging situation for the Israeli Defense Forces, as the eyes of the world monitored their every move. Every civilian casualty was headline news, and Israel often came up short in the PR department.

Because the Torah values preservation of life above all, it is incredibly difficult to see  people killed by a Jewish army as collateral damage, unintended casualties that divert our attention from the struggle for survival Israel faces every day.


In describing the creation of human beings the torah tells usAnd G-d created a human being in his image, in the image of G-d was created a human being, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).

Does this strange, awkwardly poetic verse tell us more about man, or rather more about G-d?

Does G-d have an image?

Since the image and essence of G-d is intrinsically unknowable we must observe the effect of G-d in the world to learn G-d’s “character”, or image.

Last week we learned about the emergence of Moses (Moshe) as the leader who will shepherd the Israelites toward their long awaited redemption. His initial meeting with Pharaoh, delivering the message from G-d demanding freedom of the Israelites, was met with a firm denial of the existence of G-d. “ Who is YHVH that I should listen to his voice and let Israel Go? I do not know YHVH?. Furthermore, I will not send out Israel!” (Ex. 5:2)

In this week’s parasha we read the unfolding of the massive plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. G-d speaks to Moshe and tells him that he will make an example of Pharaoh, not only to punish him personally, but to demonstrate to Egypt and the world the power of the Creator.

Before the plagues actually commence G-d tells Moshe “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…” (Ex 7:3). This seems problematic- (See the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra and others for a an explanation of how hardening Pharoah’s heart does NOT diminish his free will…)

Will Pharaoh lose his free will to reconsider his actions?

But, after the warning ( Ex 7:13) and subsequent first plague of blood, it is Pharaoh himself (Ex 7:22) who hardens his own heart and goes home, unchanged. The next four plagues, with increasing severity and dire consequences for the Egyptian people, end the same way- with Pharaoh hardening his own heart.

But, after the sixth plague of sh’cheen (boils) we see a break from the precedent. This time it is G-d who hardens Pharaoh’ heart, as he said he would do. This clearly looks like Pharaoh has lost his free will to comply with G-d’s directive, and as a result the suffering of all the people from the upcoming violent plague of fire filled hailstones would seem to be collateral damage.

This time however, the people themselves are given a warning! “Now shelter your livestock, and every thing else from the fields…” (Ex. 9:19). The suspension of the free will of Pharaoh does NOT remove the free will of the Egyptians, who are free to recognize G-d, and preserve their lives and property. The divine wrath that was thrust upon Pharaoh for the seventh plague was his own doing, and every step was taken to minimize other casualties. This is a major insight into the nature of G-d.

In the Gaza conflict the Hamas fighters would often fire their rockets from schools and crowded apartment buildings, begging retaliation that would place their own people further in harm’s way.

The Israeli army would routinely call the residents of the area on their cellphones, and warn them of the pending action, to give them an opportunity to move to safety.

Perhaps this little known procedure was an effort for the soldiers to retain their dignity, by acting, in this instance, “B’tzalem Elokim”, in the image of G-d.

We know that all wars are cruel and unjust by nature, and tragically many lives are cut short. May we live to see the end of all wars and violence, and the beginning of a global peace that will surely herald our ultimate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

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