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01/19/2021 05:13:24 PM


A few months ago there was a certain airplane flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  Like many flights these days, there was a delay.  To make matters worse, after the flight took off there was an unexpected stop in Sacramento.  The flight attendant told the passengers they were permitted to exit the plane for thirty minutes.  Everybody left the plane except one blind man.  He patiently sat in his seat, with his Seeing Eye dog quietly underneath.  He was obviously a regular because the pilot approached him by name and asked him if he would like to get off and stretch his legs.

The man said no but then observed that his dog would like to stretch his legs.  And now picture this: all the people in the gate area came to a completely quiet standstill when they looked up and saw the pilot walk off the plane with the Seeing Eye dog.  To make matters worse, the pilot was even wearing sunglasses.  People quickly scattered.  They not only tried to change planes; they also tried to change airlines!

As this story relates, sometimes we are misled by what appears to be the truth.  We forget that in life appearances often are deceiving.  Such confusion is easily found in this week's Torah portion.  In this week's portion, Pharaoh appears to be God's puppet.  The pattern is familiar.  As each plague threatens, Pharaoh is given the choice to let the Israelites go.  And each time we're told that God "hardens" his heart and he refuses.  A casual reading of the portion suggests that Pharaoh is, as it were, "set up". 

Nevertheless, some commentators throughout the ages point out that the appearance of no freewill is deceiving.  In reality, Pharaoh alone is responsible for his actions.  As they observe, during the early plagues, the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  Pharaoh's freewill becomes limited only after a pattern of stubborn and insensitive behavior develops.  As Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote, "We may conclude…that it was not God who forced Pharaoh to do evil to Israel…[For no] one forces, preordains or impels one to take one path over another.  Of our own free will do we incline to whatever way we wish to take.  This is a fundamental principle of Judaism…."

In other words, although it appears that God is controlling Pharaoh, the actual meaning of the biblical story is this: Pharaoh makes enough bad choices so that eventually his path is evil.  Eventually, the momentum of his recalcitrance and hatred carries him along without his needing to choose.  Life will choose for him.

The frightening implication of this lesson is that all of us can be denied our own choices in life after we have made enough of the wrong choices.  For most of us don't decide one day to be evil people.  Nor is anyone born with a hardened heart.  But if we make enough of the wrong choices in life, then our hearts slowly will harden.  If we cultivate selfishness, arrogance, and insensitivity, or even if we only mildly entertain such practices, we may not even be aware of how far we've moved from the ideals and expectations of our Jewish tradition in particular and our humanity in general.

Sat, September 24 2022 28 Elul 5782