D’var Torah for parashat Vaera: on plagues and hardened hearts

Here’s the d’var Torah I’ll be offering during services this morning.

This week we read one of the most dramatic narratives in Torah: the story of the ten plagues. (Or, at least, the first eight plagues; the final two will come next week.) Intriguingly, the idea of calling these “plagues” is rabbinic; in the Torah they are called “signs,” demonstrations of divine power and might.

Moshe and Aharon ask for the Israelites to be released, but Pharaoh’s heart stiffens and he says no. The Nile turns to blood, and all the fish die; Pharaoh’s heart stiffens and he says no.

Frogs die in heaps in the fields, and Pharaoh is stubborn and says no. When the dust of the earth is transformed into lice, Pharaoh’s heart stiffens and he says no once again.

After the swarms of insects, Pharaoh gives the Israelites permission to go a short distance away in order to make offerings to God, and the plague is lifted…whereupon, you guessed it, Pharaoh’s heart becomes hard and he says no again.

The Egyptians’ cattle die, but Pharaoh remains stubborn. Then God tells Moshe and Aaron to cast soot from the kiln toward the Egyptians, and the soot turns into boils. This time, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh again says no.

When hail levels the crops, Pharaoh apologizes for his misdeeds. But when Moshe raises his hands and the hail ceases, Pharaoh’s heart once again stiffens, and he says no yet again. That’s where this week’s portion ends.

Every time I read this, the vindictiveness troubles me. On the Egyptian end of things, Pharaoh will not let himself see the Israelites’ anguish. Even when his own people are suffering in retribution, Pharaoh refuses to relent.

And on our end, we see a vision of God Who is pretty vindictive, too. God punishes the Egyptians not only for their misdeeds, but also for their leader’s unwillingness to hear the call of justice. And the one time in this parsha when Pharaoh does not harden his heart, God hardens his heart for him. What can we make of that?

The interpretation which works best for me is that Pharaoh accustomed his own heart to being hard. He made a habit of acting without regard for justice or for the needs of the oppressed. You know how, when children make ugly faces, parents sometimes say “be careful, your face might get stuck that way”? Pharaoh made his heart ugly, and it got stuck that way. He wore grooves of injustice and lack of compassion into his heart, and was then unable to change; God “hardened his heart.”

We might even replace the word “God” here with the notion of karma: because of all of Pharaoh’s prior actions, his own karma predisposed his heart to harden even when he didn’t take pains to harden it himself.

Reading this, we may justifiably feel a bit smug. The Israelites in this story are slavery’s innocent victims; nothing here is our fault.

And yet. Let me shift our focus.

Every year, from September until May, millions of tomatoes are harvested in Florida and shipped around the country. The workers who pick the tomatoes come from all over the world. But because of exemptions related to farmworkers in American labor law, farmworkers are paid by the pound, not by the hour. They are paid $0.50 for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. (For the same quantity of tomatoes, we would pay almost $80 at Stop n’Shop.).

At those rates, many workers make well below the minimum wage, earning an average annual salary of about $10,000. This holds true regardless of whether workers are here legally or illegally. They face extreme pesticide exposure and unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, cases of human trafficking and slavery are rampant.

I learned these things from Rabbis for Human Rights. Now, I don’t generally eat tomatoes between September and May. Living in northern Berkshire where fresh farm-grown tomatoes are so spectacular in season, I avoid them in winter because they don’t taste very good! But that doesn’t change the fact that these workers are laboring under terrible conditions, and I am sitting idly by.

We are not Pharaoh. We do not directly oppress. But in our country the least desirable jobs are done by those who have the most to lose. Often the poorest among us live in housing which is the most vulnerable — witness the devastation wrought on the Spruces trailer park and elder community last August when Irene blew through town, leaving most of our homes unscathed.

When Pharaoh and his people bitterly oppress the Israelites, they reap plagues — the equation is clear. The connection between wickness and punishment may not be so manifest in our world…but surely our indifference to the environment leads to storms of increasing ferocity, and to climate change which we will not be able to control. We may not believe in a God Who directly punishes the wicked, but it seems to me that we co-create our reality, and our choices are not always compassionate or just.

Twice a year we read the story of how God lifted the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom and covenant: first during these weeks of Torah readings, and later at Pesach. We learn that each of us must see herelf as though God had lifted her out of slavery. The children of Israel in this story are our ancestors — spiritually, if not in genetic terms.

But there’s nothing keeping us from being like Pharaoh, too. This week’s Torah portion calls us to take a hard look at our choices, at the ways in which we habitually harden our hearts against people who are not like us. Do our hearts begin to harden themselves against the poor, against people who practice a different religion than we do, against those who pick our tomatoes or scrub our floors? This parsha holds a warning.

This Shabbat, may we soften our hearts toward everyone we meet. May our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits lead us not toward the inevitability of suffering, but into freedom and into relationship with the Most High.

I’ll close this d’var by reading the Torah poem for this portion which appears in 70 faces.

CHARGE (VA-ERA)

And God said to Moses: speak
to Pharaoh and tell him to send
the Israelites away. I will harden
the chambers of his heart
and he will not see the sign
of holiness upon your hand.

For him power is close at hand:
all he has to do is speak
and his people obey. By design
no one questions. To send
his workers away would take heart
he doesn’t have to spare. Harden

yourself against them; harden
your compassion. You are my hand
in the world; I’ll hold your heart
in safekeeping as you speak
truth to power, as you send
this nation into turmoil, a sign

of my disfavor. Bind me as a sign
upon your arm, learn to harden
your eyes, your speech. Send
locusts and lice, every hand
scratching in agony! Speak
to Pharaoh of freedom, your heart

bursting to serve. Brave heart,
take courage: I will be your sign.
My voice emerges when you speak.
For history’s sake I will harden
his hearing and stay his hand.
The world must know it is I who send

you on this errand, I who send
Israel out from here, every heart
yearning to be free. Hand by hand
you’ll build new signs
of my mercy, but first: harden
your tremulous voice, and speak.

Tell Pharaoh I send you as my sign.
His heart cannot help but harden.
My hand pulls your strings: now speak!

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