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Torah Commentary
Va-eira (January 9, 2016)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

This week’s portion is about memory, hope and faith.

The opening verses, among the most beautiful recapitulations and reaffirmations of the covenant, presage the ultimate act of redemption. We know what is coming, and yet we are swept up in the cadences of this statement. The Israelites have not been forgotten, nor has the promise been made to generations before.

Last week, at the end of our first reading from the book of Sh’mot, we learned that the lot of the Israelites has grown ever more desperate. Moses became angry with God because his effort to intervene for their freedom has backfired. This week we begin with God confirming that a hopeful future is on the horizon. We also witness a deepening intimacy between Moses and God.

There always has been one aspect of this narrative, portions of which comprise the Magid (from which we derive the word Haggadah) of the Passover seder. Not once, not twice but 15 times in the account of the events leading up to the Exodus we are told of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, his stiffened heart, his stubbornness. We already know that Pharaoh is the villain of this saga, so why would God need to further demonize him?

I am not arguing to paint Pharaoh in a more sympathetic light. One who would enslave others surely is already lacking a “soft heart.” But if his lack of empathy was beyond his control, then is he still accountable for his behavior? Is it really justified to further condemn Pharaoh for his obstinate refusals — and for bringing the plagues to his own people — when he was not master of his own emotions?

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