Dan Gutenberg’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Ve’era

Good morning and Shabbat shalom!

My parsha is Va’era, Exodus 6.2-9:35. It tells the story of the first seven plagues; blood in the nile, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, and hail. I’m reading the part that most interested me, which was the first time in my portion when God said God would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Another part that caught my attention was Pharaoh’s stubbornness or arrogant attitude towards the Israelites throughout the portion. And as we will find out, even before my portion.

So in some ways Pharaoh already had a hard heart and in other ways, God hardened it some more. In a sense those are related, but I was more interested in the differences.

When do we first see that Pharaoh might have an arrogant or stubborn or some other kind of bad attitude towards the Israelites? It’s back at Exodus 1:8: “A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.” He enslaved them out of fear that they would become too numerous and join Egypt’s enemies. This is not the Pharaoh that loved Joseph so much in Genesis. It’s a new guy. The old Pharaoh loved Joseph for his ability to interpret dreams which resulted in averting a potential catastrophe from the famine. Joseph becomes his right-hand man, the second in command, overseeing wheat being both distributed to the people and saved for the lean years, the famine. Egypt would not have survived without Joseph.

But a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph and did not know the story. So we know Pharaoh is against us, worried about us, scared of us and instead of working with us, he does the opposite. He oppresses. So maybe not stubborn and arrogant but someone who abuses his power and squashes the people’s rights. So maybe God had some reason to see him as someone who wouldn’t cooperate.

Then next in Exodus 5:1, again before my portion, is the first instance when Moses says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” And Pharaoh says no, and asks, “who is this God?” And because you dared to ask something of me, you can now get your own straw instead of having it supplied to you. So matters only got worse.

What kind of person does that? Somebody who doesn’t believe in this particular god, for starters. But also someone who wants ultimate power and is mainly concerned about keeping his position. He’s punishing them for asking him for something, for questioning his ultimate authority by asking him to let them go pray. Just a three day journey. They had planned to come back.

Now finally, we can talk about God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The first reference to this is in the first part we read today, in Exodus 7:3. “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I might multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.”

First off, this can symbolize many things, but I think it mainly shows that God is making it clear that God can do what God wants to. God can control anything God wants to control, including Pharaoh’s emotional state. The story could have gone several other ways. Conceivably, Pharaoh could have surrendered as soon as he saw the blood in the nile, and not ask for his sorcerers to duplicate it. Or Pharaoh could have surrendered on the third plague when his sorcerers couldn’t duplicate the lice that God brought through Moses and Aaron and even Pharaoh had to say in Exodus 8:15, “this is the finger of God.” Even before that, before any plagues at all, when Moses was first demanding that the Israelites be released (remember LMPG), and God showed power through turning Aaron’s rod into a serpent, he could have said, enough. I give up. Uncle.

Lots of opportunities for Pharaoh to give in to God’s ultimate power. And he refused. Until the 10th plague, when it was much too late. After his son had died, along with all of the first borns in Egypt. So, here are two entities that are both invested in displaying their ultimate power over the other. Pharaoh didn’t want to admit something had more power over him, since he was the person with the most power. God also had something to prove.

Now, that all the data is out there, what can we conclude about my original question, which to refresh your memory was, to rephrase: How much is Pharaoh being ‘himself,’ a somewhat paranoid man worried about consolidating his power, and how much is a result of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to consolidate God’s power?

I think that in the beginning, everything started from Pharaoh just being himself. The more he oppressed, the more the situation escalated to the point where the Israelites appealed to God, and God had to do something about it. And what God did, hardening Pharaoh’s heart, just made him more of who he was in the first place. It just made a bad situation worse, at least for Pharaoh. Not to mention, the Egyptians. From back at Saturday school I remembered thinking, why did the Egyptians need to suffer because of Pharaoh’s pride?

In the end, the Israelites were let out of Egypt after the tenth and most devastating plague of them all. And then most of Pharaoh’s army ended up dying when once again, Pharaoh changed his mind and had his army pursue the Israelites into the Red Sea. And if we look ahead two weeks into Exodus 14:4, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart one last time.

What lesson do we learn from this?

Pharaoh knew he was going to lose this battle but he wouldn’t admit it, to the point where the situation got out of control. As he said (as seen in the Prince of Egypt): “I will not be the Pharaoh who presides over this civilization falling apart.” Pride gets in the way of doing what he knew to be the right thing. And that always makes matters worse.

Most likely, we each have at least one story where pride overtook our ability to make the right or wise decision. And just like I didn’t want to share a personal example (it is called “pride” for a reason), I bet you don’t want to answer this question out loud either. So instead, I’ll ask another question. This is the point in my speech where I turn the mike over to you to answer a question I pose. So here goes:

What we have to remember is that this Exodus story became our freedom story. A story so important we retell it every seder, every Passover. So the question I want to pose to you today is: Why did we need this to be our story? How does it define us? How does it help us?

Personally, I believe Judaism itself would be dramatically changed without this story. It’s our redemption story and shows how how we got from slavery to freedom. And how we couldn’t have done it without God’s help. Today we have to get out of these situations a different way without resorting to God’s miracles, like the plagues and Moses’s leadership, although there are always Pharaohs. Instead, we have to work together and use our intelligence to come up with solutions that benefit everyone.

In this spirit of doing what we each can do to come up with solutions that benefit everyone, for my mitzvah project I am working to support organizations that research cures for heart disease, Parkinson’s Disease and pancreatic cancer. I’m doing this because there are three people close to me who passed away last year who would have loved to be here today: my grandfather, Jerry Charnizon, who suffered from heart disease; my uncle Barry Schweid, who died of Parkinson’s, and Debbie Zivan’s mother, Karen, who died of pancreatic cancer.

There are so many people I’d like to thank for making this whole thing possible: First, I’d like to thank Rabbi Alana for leading a wonderful service this morning, and helping me prepare all the way from Detroit. I’d also like to thank my great tutor, Deb Kraus, for teaching me to chant Torah, and having a very flexible schedule for my lessons throughout the months of my preparation. Thanks to the (Ann Arbor Reconstructionist) congregation that I’m now a part of. Thanks to everyone who traveled from all over the country, I’m thankful that you can all be here and watch me become a bar mitzvah today. Of course thanks to my parents and brother for being encouraging and helpful for the whole process of my studying. Thank you for being supportive and always finding me time to practice reading and chanting torah. Finally thanks to all of my friends, from soccer and school.