Guest Blogger: Noah Goldmann
This week’s Torah portion is Vaera, from the book of Exodus. Vaera begins with God ordering Moses to free the Jewish people from Egypt. God reminds Moses that Pharaoh will initially refuse to set the Jewish people free because his heart had been hardened. Next, the first seven plagues take place: Blood, frogs, lice, a swarm of wild beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. During each plague Pharaoh pleads with Moses to stop it; and in return promises to let the Jewish people leave. But after each plague stops he immediately changes his mind. I chanted the 7th plague, where “fiery hail struck down every man and beast in the open.” This is the last plague where Pharaoh’s heart hardened without God’s direct intervention. In the next three plagues, Pharaoh’s decision was altered because of God’s interference.
Free will is a talking point in my portion that really stood out to me. Was Pharaoh able to control his decisions after God hardened his heart? Did he ever have free will at all? And, did God want any person, even Pharaoh, to make a bad decision? I will talk about all these questions, and share my views on God and Pharaoh’s actions.
Free will is the power to make your own decisions. During the first seven plagues, the torah says “yechezak,” or that “Pharaoh’s heart hardened.” This probably means that it hardened without God’s intervention, and Pharaoh had free will. During the last three plagues, the torah says “vaychazeik,” or that God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and took away his free will. I believe that you always have free will until your attitude erases it. What I mean by this statement is that a person has free will until their choices become a habit. That habit will overpower their attitude and eventually even change it. Pharaoh had absolute free will during the first 7 plagues and decisions, but while he was choosing not to let the Jews go again and again, a habit formed. Then this habit transformed his attitude, and set it against ever letting the Jewish people go. Therefore, at some point, your attitude “hardens” and you aren’t able to change anymore.
Over the past month, I’ve had some great discussions with my extremely smart Aunt Connie. Together, we compared Pharaoh to someone with a bad habit. Clearly Pharaoh’s bad habit was his stubbornness in refusing to let the Jewish People go. Every person in this room has at least one bad habit. It could be small and harmless, or it could be big and very serious. I would like you to take a moment and remind yourself of your bad habit.
God introduces three ways of helping Pharaoh realize and change his bad habit. These three ways are will power, external behavior modifications, and a personal disaster. In the first seven plagues, God gives Pharaoh the chance to make the most of the first two options. Pharaoh chose to ignore them, and hardened his own heart. Contrary to Pharaoh’s actions, I urge all of you to always take advantage of strong will and external behavior modifications. Strong will is probably the most efficient of these two options, but it’s often hardest to use. Seeking help from others can also help someone break out of a bad habit. Whatever you do, do not ignore these two options. Pharaoh refused to change, which led him to the third option: personal disaster.
When Pharaoh wouldn’t change on his own, God took more extreme measures to make sure that Pharaoh knew he was doing something wrong. God sent the final plague in the form of a personal disaster. The death of all of the Egyptian first-born finally changed Pharaoh.
Think one more time about your bad habit.
I hope you agree with me that changing it could lead to a better life. No one should ever wait for a personal disaster to change their bad habits. I think God wants us to change before a personal disaster happens, and I believe that you’ll be happier knowing that you managed to break your bad habit before it managed to change your life.
NOAH GOLDMANN is a cellist, a reader, and a dancer. He is an 8th grade honors student at MacArthur Barr Middle School in Rockland County, New York, and just recently celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah. He wrote his dvar Torah about the plagues in Vaera.