Parashat Va’eira – Erev Shabbat 24 January 2020
Week of 19-25 January 2020
Torah portion: Exodus 6:2-9:35    Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Theme: ‘… so that you may know that I am the LORD’ (10:2)

Last week we read in Parashat Shemot that Pharaoh asked, ‘Who is the Lord?’ (5:2) The following chapters about the plagues, that we read this week, in Parashat Va’eira, seem to be God’s way of showing him the answer. (Berlin 106) Pharaoh’s hardened heart suggests he doesn’t really want to know the answer. But the text tells us that the purpose of the plagues is not necessarily to soften Pharaoh’s heart but ‘… so that you may know that I am the LORD’ (10:2). Va’eira is a complex and multivalent text, raising more questions than answers. We will briefly visit two complex layers that support us in our own journey towards knowing that God is ‘the LORD’; Pharaoh’s hardened heart and the darkness of the 9th plague.

In our text, the English word ‘hardened’ is used to translate several Hebrew words. Some examples are: קשׁה the meaning is ‘to harden, linked with stubborn, severe, fierce’ (7:3); כבד ‘to make heavy, dull, unresponsive’ (10:1) and חזק ‘to make strong, be or grow firm, strengthen’ (14:4). This raises many questions including: is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, making it heavy, strengthening it or all three? God hardening Pharaoh’s heart suggests he does not have free will, while strengthening it suggests that Pharaoh can choose to do what he wishes and will be strengthened in the choices he makes. Pharaoh’s oppression of others, whatever the motive or qualitative subtleties of his hardened heart, causes pain and suffering. Building on neuro-scientific research, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues contrary to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Sacks says, ‘We are not born free. We have to work hard to achieve freedom. That takes rituals, whose repeated performance creates new neural pathways and new rapid-response behaviour. It requires … a mental mindset that pauses before any significant action and asks, … “Is this who I am and what I stand for?”’

‘Who I am and what I stand for’ may also be at play in the 9th plague which is ‘a darkness that can be felt’. (Ex 10:21) The ‘darkness’ may, ironically, shed some light on the power dynamic at play in Pharaoh’s hardening heart – where does power lie and what is it used for? The sun, having no power to overcome the darkness of the 9th plague, may have served as a sign to the people that their Pharaoh, Rameses II, whose name means ‘son of the sun’ had no power in God’s economy. Some have argued that the darkness was a moral darkness wherein people could no longer see each other (pharaoh could only see a labour force). For example, a Chasidic commentary on this says, ‘The darkness was so dense that people could not see one another. That is the worst of all darknesses: when people are unable to “see” their neighbours, that is, not their distress and help them.’ (Plaut, 454)

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] What supports do you need in your relationships when you notice your heart has hardened? [2] How might knowing God support you in seeing yourself and others with more compassionate eyes?

Bibliography: Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: 2012);; Gottlieb-Zornberg, A. The Particulars of Rapture (New York: 2001); Plaut, W. G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: 1981); Sacks, J. Freewill: Use It or Lose It. Va’era 5778 (

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