Between (Biblical) Egypt and (Today’s) Australia: Stubbornness and narrow-mindedness / Discover Who Pharaoh Really is! #Va’era
This week I watched the news coming from Australia: golf-ball-size hail and massive dust storms hitting rural and urban areas alike.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks weather-wise. Now it’s hail and dust but Australia isn’t done yet with the terrible fires that have lashed its territory, killing more than 30 people, tens of thousands of animals, and destroying more than 2,500 homes.
For those who follow the Israeli news, you know that Israel had in a short period of time more rain than it can possibly use and handle. Some people died in terrible accidents due to floods. Many were advised not to leave their homes, among them my dad in the city of Nahariya.
So many of us have been following with concern the environmental news of the last couple of weeks. But for me the hail opened an additional layer of understanding. Toward the end of our Torah portion – Va’era, in chapter 9 of the book of Exodus, we learn that Moses warns Pharaoh from the 7th plague, which happens to be hail. But Pharaoh doesn’t listen to Moses and therefore his people and his land pay the consequences.
So keeping in mind the devastating reality that we see in the news while reading the story of Pharaoh, one may ask: Didn’t Pharaoh understand the warning given to him by the previous 6 plagues? And Thousands of years later… don’t we understand the warning?
Now, for Pharaoh, the short answer is – a messed-up personality, a lack of connection with reality which led to wrong leadership. But it gets even worse! And what exacerbates it is that Pharaoh gets to this place not because of the dichotomy of good and evil or wise and unwise but rather because of nuances that tend to be ignored.
In this Torah portion, Va’era, as we witness the interaction between Pharaoh and Moses, we learn that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. This key idea of hardening Pharaoh’s heart repeats several times in the Torah portion.
So we know how it goes; Moses and Aharon go to Pharaoh and ask him to let their people go. Now, look at this from Pharaoh’s perspective; One of the pillars of his society is slavery. So this request of changing the status-quo is very challenging for him. Now, we learned in the previous interaction that Pharaoh doesn’t deal well with fear! “Remember?” At the beginning of the book of Exodus, he got scared by the growth of the Israelites and so he tried to kill all their (ours) male newborns. Now he is again uncomfortable and scared. But there is even more! Torah tells us that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, and when we say “God”, besides the characterization of God that the bible describes, we are talking about Pharaoh’s own life’s spirit. And the specific word is Heart. In biblical language the word Heart means Mind.
So let me summarize this for you: We have Pharaoh, whose heart has been hardened, as we said – heart means mind – so we have this stubborn man who is the king of the land of Egypt, in Hebrew Mitzrayim, which means narrow.
The stubborn man king of the land of narrowness is being challenged with change, and guess what, he doesn’t do well with change!
So God, Moses, Aharon, all warn him. Many in his kingdom start to understand it and they try to protect themselves. But Pharaoh doesn’t get it, Pharaoh doesn’t want to get it!
He just wants to keep things as they were and he doesn’t really want to pay attention to this new reality. He keeps ignoring it.
And now, back to Australia, or to my dad sitting in his home in Nahariya being told to stay there for 3 days…
We could say – this is about leaders, it’s about Pharaoh, it’s about this or that bad leader in turn.
But my friends, this did not happen in 1, 2, 3 and not even 10 years.
21 years ago, I had a conversation with a dear teacher of civic education. He asked us who wanted to be a politician, and my teenager answer to that question was: “I don’t want to be a politician because they are all liars and corrupt”.
Then he answered with a big smile and lots of loving kindness – Nico, our politicians come from within our society and they are a reflection of the society we are.
The scales sometimes are different but the values are the same, so if they lie it’s because we are liars and lying is acceptable, if they are corrupt is because we are corrupt and corruption is acceptable.
So we shall ask: is the destruction of our environment acceptable to us?
And while holding our leaders accountable, the first level of accountability starts at home.
As I said earlier, trying to place Pharaoh in the dichotomy of good and evil or wise and unwise, as comforting as it might be, is absolutely misleading. Because when we are talking about the stubborn, narrow-minded king of Egypt who doesn’t want to know and who doesn’t want to change it extricates us from the question of are WE being stubborn, narrow-minded, who don’t want to know nor want to change.
My friends, the warnings are written on the wall and everywhere else. Fire, hail, dust, flood, hundreds of scientific organizations saying that we must revise our environmental behavior! Yet many of our hearts are still hardened. We cannot afford to be the stubborn who ignores the signs and ends up devastating his entire nation and mourning his own son.
It is time to increase our commitment to the Mitzvah of taking care of the well-being of our world.
Behold, that’s how the story of humanity starts. One of the most important and revolutionary ideas of the Torah is that we are responsible and accountable for the well-being of our world.
I want to commend many of you who are already doing important things in this topic in your personal lives and some are even activists; I urge you to keep doing and inspiring us! And if you can, consider doing even more, as our tradition says: Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, a mitzvah brings another mitzvah!
I want to share with you 5 specific ideas to increase our Mitzvah performance in this topic, and conclude with a prayer, so the work of our hands starts by our souls and hearts.
1. Conserve Water
Every time you turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth, you’re doing something good. Got a leaky faucet? You might be dripping as much as 90 gallons (340 liters) of water down the drain every day [source: EPA]. So fix it!
2. Be Car-conscious
If you can, stay off the road two days a week or more. You’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,590 pounds (721 kilograms) per year [source: EPA]. It’s easier than you think. You can combine your errands — hit the school, grocery store and dog daycare in one trip. Carpool to temple!
3. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
You can help reduce pollution just by putting that soda can in the recycling bin. It really does make a difference. You can also take reusable bags to the grocery, and avoid using disposable plates, spoons, glass, cups and napkins. They create huge amounts of waste.
4. Give Composting a Try
Data from just a few years ago shows that in one year Americans generated 262.4 million tons of trash. Almost half of it ended up in landfill. Imagine if you could divert some of that to your own compost? It would help reduce the amount of solid waste you produce. Plus, compost makes a great natural fertilizer.
5. Switch to LEDs
LED bulbs emit light in a very narrow band wavelength so they’re super energy-efficient. Start replacing your old incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs now (if you haven’t already).
As we acknowledge that Tikkun Olam starts by each of us in our households, we do understand that same need for our communal household. Therefore, a group of TBT members are now actively exploring ways for our congregation to reduce waste and to use energy in more efficient ways. If you’re interested in joining this group please approach me after service and I’ll be happy to tell you more about it.
Dear God, You created earth and heavens with mercy,
and blew the breath of life into animals and humans.
We were created amidst a world of wholeness, a world called “very good,” pure and beautiful,
but now your many works are being erased by us from the book of life.
Not by our righteousness do we plead our prayers before You,
Adonai our God, for we have sinned, despoiled, destroyed.
Open our eyes to see the majesty of Your creation!
Then we will praise you as it is written:
“How manifold are Your works, Adonai!
You made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with what you hold.”
Please Adonai, remove the heart of stone from our flesh,
and set within us a heart of flesh, that we may behold the Godly therein.
Grant us wisdom and courage to heal and to watch over this garden of life, to make it thrive under the heavens.
And let us say,