CHALLENGE AND CHOICE – “Va-eyra” – Ex. 6:2-9:35 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah reading ranks among the most famous and most spectacular accounts of all the ancient adventures of our people. Here we will read about seven of the famous Ten Plagues of Egypt. Blood, Frogs, Gnats, Beetles, Murrain, Boils, Hail – each one is announced in advance. And G-d tells Moses what answer to expect from Pharaoh every time.
Can we learn anything for today from this story?
Indeed we can. In fact, our rabbis learned something important from it long ago. All human beings have free choice. Challenged by Moses, Pharaoh could certainly agree to keep his word and let the people go if the plague stops. But he doesn’t. And G-d knows he won’t, because that is his character. Yes, we all have free choice, within our individual limits. But G-d knows what choice we will make. Pharaoh the king had virtually no limits, so in his case, the Torah calls it “hardening his heart.” While Egypt is suffering from a plague, Pharaoh promises to release his slaves if Moses will pray to remove it. As soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh hardens his heart and breaks his promise.
Looking at these plagues, we see that they increase in severity. The first plagues have at least a nuisance effect and at most a scare effect – water that turns to blood, frogs all over the country, gnats filling the air, etc. – while the later plagues start with boils affecting both humans and animals, followed by a violent hailstorm threatening life itself. The rabbinic comment on this sequence states that for the first five plagues Pharaoh retained his freedom of choice, so his evil decisions were his own and he risked the retribution they involved. But the last five plagues left him no alternative; in fact Moses brings him the Divine message: “This time I send all my plagues to your heart, to your servants and to your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all of Earth.” Next week, of course, come the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn, causing Pharaoh not just to release his Hebrew slaves but to chase them out of the country. Having chosen to reject the first challenges, say the rabbis, Pharaoh now must reject the last ones. His destruction is inevitable.
Make wrong decisions a habit, and inevitably we run the risk of feeling compelled to make more and more of them. Challenges we face in daily life can seem like plagues that we could not predict, punishments we feel we did not deserve. How we face them, how we adapt our behavior to meet them, can betray or fulfill us. We have free choice. Let’s hope it lasts for at least five challenges.