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Parashat Va-era

January 18, 2007

By Arnold Saltzman

In parashat Va-era we learn that God is not only the Creator, but the preserver of existence. God has established His covenant and therefore He cannot forget B’nei Yisrael ‘ the Children of Israel – in our ordeal of slavery. God tells Moses that He has heard our groaning and remembered His covenant (Exodus 6:5). This portrait of God, Who is compassionate, feeling, caring, and loyal, stands in opposition to the perplexing portrayal of God Who, as the Bible reports many times, ‘hardens the heart’ of Pharaoh.

The midrash discusses these instances. In Midrash Rabbah, Exodus VII, 3, we learn that God said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Although I really set out to punish him [Pharaoh], I want you to show him the respect due to his regal position.’

We also learn in another midrash that Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn (kaved), even without God’s additional action of hardening it: ‘God said to him: ‘Wretch! With this same word which thou showest thy stubbornness, I will glorify Myself (mith-kabed) over there,’ as it is said: And I will get Me honor upon Pharaoh (XIV,4).’

And we are also taught that with each plague God gave Pharaoh an opportunity to repent, because Pharaoh had free will, but after the fifth plague and failure by Pharaoh to change, God decided to harden his heart to exact the whole punishment from him.

Thus we are confronted with a very strong image of God having hardened Pharaoh’s heart, many times. How do we understand this matter? Is God making it more difficult for us to be redeemed from slavery? Is God making Pharaoh more unfeeling, rather than more compassionate?

What we have here is a clash between a man (Pharaoh) who believes he is God, and God who gives man the opportunity to change. Yet, Pharaoh would not change; he hardened his heart. After many chances, God further hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that God can now demonstrate His glory and greatness. To this model of a person’s inability to grow and change the Torah juxtaposes two figures who exemplify the very opposite – the ability to take on new challenges and a new sense of mission.

It is noteworthy that Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they made their demand on Pharaoh. There is a suggestion here that Pharaoh would be impressed with their age, since in Gen. 47:7-10 another, earlier Pharaoh was impressed by Jacob’s advanced age. Nevertheless this is a record for the age of a person beginning a career of public leadership. The Torah does not seem to be disturbed by this. Rather, we may feel that there is an important message for us in these data.

Rashi uses this information to help him calculate that we were not in Egypt for the full four hundred years, but that exile began with the birth of Isaac who was considered an outsider by the Canaanite, and therefore part of the exile.

Sforno, however, draws another lesson from the fact of their advanced ages. He states that, in spite of their (Moses’ and Aaron’) age, they rose up to fulfill the wishes of God. Sforno comments that the age of eighty is already passed the age of gray hair. Rather it is an age of strength which is emphasized in Psalm 90:10 ‘ ‘The days of our years are seventy years, or even by reason of strength, eighty years.’ The example of Moses and Aaron beginning their monumental task in advanced age serves as an inspiration for those of us who wish to continue leading productive and meaningful lives as life expectancy increases.