Thursday, January 26, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty and Pharaoh’s hardened heart Vayera

Aboriginal and Military men on Australia day on a navy ship
I am feeling daunted. I need to make things happen in a messy context of conflicting beliefs, ranging from relativist/postmodernist to “fundamentalist”/positivist. Some object to Muslim girls in hijabs being on an Australia day poster; others donate money to reinstate the poster and a third group who believe Australia Day itself is symbolically evil because of its celebration on a day when injustices were inflicted on Aboriginal people that lasted for many generations.

In addition, my core team at Together For Humanity is growing to 6. It was not that long ago when it was just 2 or 3. In the course of our work we deal with a range of people including genuine committed people who ‘get it’ and the insincere or misguided who present obstacles to meaningful conversations about contentious issues or our work more generally.  I need to lead this team through all of this ambiguity to get results for students, stakeholders and governments, all with their own sometimes conflicting interests, beliefs and needs.

One comforting thought that came up in discussions with some Muslim applicants during job interviews at TFH  was that “God’s will will be done”. Similarly, one religious response to the rise of a certain world leader who appears to be neither wise nor principled, is that God will guide him in accordance with the tradition that “The hearts of Kings are in the hands of God” (1).

The hunger for escape from uncertainty in faith is similar to the impulse that drives otherwise sane people to embrace a comical con-man and give him power. Yet, this comfort - of a compassionate God controlling the hearts of rulers- comes up against the reality that many rulers, past and present, have done and continue to do terrible things regardless of whatever divine influences are at play.
At a work level I trust God, myself and my team to do good and to navigate the complexities, while acknowledging that some external factors might be too difficult to overcome. I suggest that we are better off acknowledging the uncertain nature of reality (2), and that whatever divine influence there is, is more indirect and complex.  

This is a tricky topic for me. For many years I rejected the argument that ‘God didn’t do the Holocaust, men did’ (3). I grew up with a sense of God being the one that basically controlled everything. I thought: ‘Why would you pray to a God who had left the affairs of humans to the whims of sadistic tyrants?’

Like many things in Judaism there are conflicting views. In the Torah reading this week, we learn how God planned to manipulate the Pharaoh’s emotions by “hardening his heart” (4) so that he would initially ignore God’s messengers of freedom. One authority taught that in matters of the kingdom, the choices of the king are restricted by God and the king is like a messenger of God. “If these matters were given over to his choice completely just as his private activities are, this would be an astounding danger to the nation under the sovereignty of that king” (5).  

Despite the risks of out-of-control rulers, I was delighted to read the work of one of our great authorities who challenged the simple understanding that God manipulated Pharaoh’s emotions. This scholar dismissed attempts to justify divine control as very strange and difficult! (6) Instead he argued that the choices of kings are not manipulated in a puppet like fashion (7). Rather, God acts in such a way that can lead the ruler to make a particular choice. In the case of the Pharaoh, God indirectly hardened his heart by bringing plagues on the Egyptians in what seemed to be happenstance: a plague began but was not sustained. This created an opportunity for the Pharaoh to dismiss the significance of the plague as a natural occurrence.   

Another view about this is the punitive approach that explains the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an exceptional punishment for his wickedness (8). However this implies that normally kings do have free choice (9). All in all, it is fair to conclude that Judaism’s teaching about the nature of God’s intervention in the affairs of rulers is complex and that is ok.

I read a delightful thought this week about embracing complexity. “The dilemma of rigor or relevance. In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large,...while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern…” (10)

So it is clear, that a lot of what matters is inherently unclear but that is where the opportunities for contribution lie. So I take a deep breath and dive into the swamp. I am comforted by the belief that in some mysterious way my heart will be guided.   

  1. This often quoted Jewish teaching appears to be based on Proverbs 21:1 states: A king's heart is like rivulets of water in the Lord's hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it. The book of Ezra 6:22 it states: And they celebrated the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy, for the Lord made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the House of God, the God of Israel. Rashi’s commentary on Ezra 6:22 makes clear that it is God who turned the heart of the King of Assyria. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the verse is less clear. He points out that Assyria had previously destroyed the land of Israel, but now his heart was turned from his evil thoughts to good and this is the reason to strengthen their hands. It is not clear if Ibn Ezra agrees with Rashi that it is God who turned the hearts or with Sadiaa Gaon in note 7 that kings turn their own hearts. I found some of these references at
  2. See the work of Donald Schon who sees reality as inherently uncertain and complex.
  3. Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
  4. Exodus 7:3
  5. Ralbag, on Proverbs 21:1,
    אילו היה פועל המלך מסור בליבו לאלו העינינים בשלמות כדרך המסור לבחירתו פעולותיו לעצמו, היה זה העניין סכנה נפלאה (= חמורה) אל העם אשר תחת המלך ההוא" וכו'
  6. Abarbanel on Exodus 7:3
  7. Abarbanel, see also Rabbi Saadia Gaon who characterised the idea that there is some kind of supernatural divine planting of thoughts in the hearts of kings is an exaggeration, instead it is the king himself who turns his own heart as he desires, in Emunot Vdeot, Maamar 4, close to the end.
  8. Shemot Rabba, 13:4- cited in Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 1, Rashi on Exodus 7:3, Maimonides, introduction to Pirkey Avot, chapter 8. This formulation is articulated as being withheld from repentance, although this concept is also explained psychologically by Ohr HaAfelia, (Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 2- in note 2 from previous page) that being entrenched in a particular sin is itself the active factor in being withheld from repertance.
Schon, Donald

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