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28 Tevet 5783

Who can we blame if we have free will?

In this parashah, Vaera “He appeared”, the Creator spoke to Moshe and said that He appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but that He was not “known” to them as יהוה  Yud Heh Vav Heh (YHVH). This could be misleading if we don’t understand what He meant; after all, Yud Heh Vav Heh appears in Bereshit. “Being known” is when we truly have an intimate relationship with someone. Shad in Hebrew means breast referring to breast feeding and El Shaddai carries the idea of being the nurturer. Now the Israelites would see Him working directly with them as the God of action.

This would be a war between the God of the Hebrews and the gods of the Egyptians. Moshe and Aaron were the spokesmen for, representatives of יהוה Yud Heh Vav Heh, while Pharaoh represented himself as the god of the Egyptians. The world would soon witness the actions of the one and only God.  In this process, Israel would recover her lost hope while Pharaoh would have to learn humility. The Egyptians were regarded as being on the top while the Israelites were at the bottom; now God would level the playing field for both Hebrews and Egyptians being side by side. God would show them that their character was defined through the circumstances.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of Creation, the Bore Olam who created Israel along with every human being on earth. We are each His children despite the fact that so many hate each other. In this book, He will show us why He chose Israel. Chapter 9 says  “13YHVH then said to Moses, ‘Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh. Say to him, “YHVH, God of the Hebrews, says this: Let my people go and worship me.14 For this time I am going to inflict all my plagues on you, on your officials and on your subjects, so that you will know that there is no one like me in the whole world.15 Had I stretched out my hand to strike you and your subjects with pestilence, you would have been swept from the earth16 But I have let you survive for this reason: to display My power to you and tohave My name talked of throughout the world”. (Exodus 9:13) How much clearer can it be?

If we have such a powerful God why didn’t He take the Israelites out in one fell swoop or simply kill Pharaoh? Why go through all this? The Torah teaches us life’s basic principles through these stories. The Creator limited Himself so that we could exercise His gift to us of “Bechirah Chofshit, Free Will”.  In Ex. 9:12, it seems to be the opposite in the case of Pharaoh. “2 But YHVH made Pharaoh stubborn and, as YHVH  had foretold to Moses, he did not listen to them.” Many people believe that they live completely under God’s will, making it His responsibility and fault for everything they do. I have spoken to many survivors of the Holocaust who said, “If there is a God, how could He have allowed these things to happen to us.”  What they do not understand is that because He has given us Free Will, our God allows human beings to act as they will, even if it leads us to self-destruction. I have worked as a counselor in the CDU (Center of Dependency Unit). Those who admit that they have a problem, do well, but those who think that everyone else is the problem, not them, and will not accept help, harden themselves against any possibility of improving. Have you met people like that, thinking that they know better than anyone else? What will change this attitude in them?  Only when we start going through difficult times, do we begin to soften and seek help.  Pharaoh was so full of pride that he could not listen to anyone, even when his own people told him to let the Israelites go or they would all be destroyed.  How is it possible to get through to such people?

At the beginning of Exodus 6 in verses 6 and 7, we see a Pesach tradition in which we raise four cups of wine : “I shall free you from the forced labour of the Egyptians; I shall rescue you from their slavery and I shall redeem you with outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgement.7 I shall take you as my people and I shall be your God.”  

Did you know that it is more difficult to be freed from emotional slavery than physical slavery, which is more visible? Our Creator does not want us to be slaves to anyone or anything. We hide our emotional and spiritual slavery with good intentions, but these create dependency. Most of us prefer to allow others to control us because we are afraid to take care of ourselves. That is why there are still so many nations in the world who are exploited by and are dependent upon dictators. Even in so-called free Western countries, politicians promise to take care of us if we give them our money and our lives.  It is easier to be taken care of because taking control means we have to be responsible. Spiritual and emotional dependency is the hardest to get rid of.

What was the Creator doing? Did He only want to free Israel from Pharaoh, or was He also freeing the Egyptians from Pharaoh? When we have tunnel vision, it is hard to see the full picture. What is this teaching us for today? Let’s challenge ourselves about how to appropriate and benefit from this story of getting out of slavery. Have you asked yourself “To what am I attached in my life that I can’t let go?” We may think that slavery involves only superficial or large things, but there are subtle slaveries such as our status, our image, or our name. Do you live with so many superstitious that you freeze? Can you not make a move because your horoscope or astrological chart warns you not to? Do you have an addictive personality? Are you limited because you have so many deep-rooted fears?

Emotional slavery is quite subtle and slowly removes our capacity to make our own decisions. More often than not, people who are addicted to something, for e.g., cigarettes,  start by not liking it and eventually get hooked. They think that they can stop at any time but are usually only fooling themselves. It’s hard work to stop. That’s what Pharaoh’s process is teaching us today. Like him, we become stubborn and continue this pattern until we lose our capability to change.  How many of are still at the threshold when there is a possibility to change but we insist on waiting? I can change whenever I want to but change needs to happen today; don’t say “I’m thinking about it” or “I’ll start tomorrow”, for tomorrow never comes. The Creator was showing Israel and Pharaoh and that He would free them, not to make them slaves to Him or other people, but free to be themselves, because He made them in His likeness and image. He wanted them to exercise their free will so that they could be responsible for their actions. What do some major religions teach? Don’t worry if you sin, someone else will pay for it. What does the Torah teach us? “You do it, you pay for it.” We don’t like that; we would prefer that someone else pay for it but sadly we all end up paying. In the end, we are responsible and that no one can pay for our mistakes.

Pharaoh’s stubborn pride made him so selfish that he didn’t even care what happened to his people. In the next parashah, Bo we will see that he finally realized what he had done when it hit home with the death of his first-born son. When will we open our eyes to examine the areas where we are not doing right?  We think that if we don’t deal with it, it will just pass. Why do we continue this lie?

After exercising our free will comes the idea of kavanah, intention. Even the person who thinks that he is the most righteous and religious, keeping all the rules, doesn’t impress the Creator. He knows our hearts. He knew Pharaoh’s intentions; that he would constantly change his mind about letting the people go. Why did God allow it to go so long?  Each of the ten plagues indicate the destruction of each of the gods of Egypt until they were completely destroyed.

The story of the plagues teaches us to have a relationship with the Creator. When we open ourselves up to Him, He shows us the areas in which we need to improve.  That is why I continuously tell you to read Psalm 139: 23-24 “Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me, and know my thoughts; And see if there be any way in me that is grievous, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We lie to ourselves so well about who we are that we believe our own lies until they become reality. We need to wake up, to be free and stop being slave to our egos, our pride. When we reach that point, we become the best we can be. We no longer live by appearances, but we admit what we do wrong…we lose our temper, we are impulsive, we are stubborn.

I love the book of Exodus because it’s the story of our lives and helps us to grow from childhood to adulthood. Who are the ones who never grow? They are the Pharaoh types who never admit that they do anything wrong. They don’t give themselves space to ask for the right type of help. How stubborn we can be and lose the capacity to think for ourselves, to do the best for ourselves because we are so self-destructive. When we think that we are the centre of the universe, like Pharaoh, we are in the wrong place. We lose perspective of those around us. We need to help each other. A dose of humility is what is needed.  Accepting our failures allows us to improve. The perfectionist cannot learn. There is a scientific formula where something progresses from elasticity to plasticity and finally to rupture.  The Creator makes all of us elastic where we can bounce back after our mistakes, but stubbornness forces us into plasticity. It cannot return to its original elasticity and the final point is rupture,  being broken. That is what happened to Pharaoh. I don’t want any of us to get to that point. I hope that we can see the areas in which we can become flexible; then we can grow and improve but when we are stubborn and refuse to change, we will need to be broken like Pharaoh.

Shabbat Shalom

Transcribed from Ranebi’s message in 5780