This week we read from Parashat Va’era, the second portion of the Sefer Shemot — the Book of Exodus. As commanded by God, Moses makes his first approach to Pharaoh, to demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Despite the first seven of the ten plagues that are to afflict the people of Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. As the text tells us, “Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go” (Exodus 7:14).
In the Broadway musical “Wicked”, Glinda the Good Witch asks the question: “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” (1st act) This question is terribly relevant both to our parashah this week and to the world in which we live today. This week, as we mourn the tragic and senseless terrorist murders in Paris, as well as the mass killings in Nigeria, we read about Moses’ confrontation with the man who exemplifies evil in our tradition, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. Again and again Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, no matter how many plagues strike Egypt. Contrasted to the humility that characterizes Moses, extreme stubbornness and pride prevent Pharaoh from letting the Israelite slaves go free.
We Jews are way too familiar with the experience of confronting evil. It began with Pharaoh and continues in the Bible with Amalek, Korach, Bilaam and Haman. In history we have survived crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts. At our Passover Seder, when we celebrate God taking us out of slavery in Egypt, we proclaim, “In every generation they rise up to try to destroy us.” In our own generation, with the murderous assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market and café sieges in Sydney, we again see the face of evil. Today that face is extremism, those who hearts are so hardened that they would rather violently kill than tolerate any sort of offense to their way of life.
As Glinda asks, how does one become this way? Was Pharaoh born evil? Was Hitler born evil? Were the jihadists born evil? If not, how did they become this way? As human beings we are not guided entirely by biological determination. From one’s culture and community we grow up learning essential values and ways of seeing the world. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that there are many paths to the same God. We are instructed to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that human beings possess both an inclination toward good and an inclination toward evil. Both exist as pure potential in each of us. One inclination can never fully defeat the other, but the eternal challenge is to maintain a balance between the two, a balance somewhere between the extremes of Moses and Pharaoh. No child is born evil. But the teachings of family and community, of culture and religion, can push one from one inclination to the other. That is how hearts are hardened. If children are taught to hate, they will grown up hating; if one is taught that it pleases God to murder those who are different, then they will murder.
Pharaoh serves as a negative example. Our tradition commands us to “teach it to your children” — to soften the heart, to develop compassion and loving-kindness and to cultivate the good inclination. These are the fundamentals of Jewish tradition. And it is in the spirit of these same teachings that we can join together with the soft-hearted peoples of all faiths and traditions to work together to bring a just peace to this world in which we all live.