Exodus timeless lesson: Hardships are not forever


Exodus 6:2-9:35

Numbers 28:9-15

Isaiah 66:1-24

Last week I found myself listening as a woman reviewed a painful life experience through which she had suffered several years earlier. She had been struggling with this memory for years, yet the pain had not seemed to ease with the passage of time. But this time, her account was profoundly different. Now, she described the painful series of events as an experience necessary to her growth. Now she felt ready to move onward in her life, seeking to weave her newfound wisdom into the life-tapestry that lay before her.

The experience reminded me of a similar moment in my own life. When my husband and I stood under the chuppah at midlife, a family member rose to give us a blessing. She rejoiced at the love we had found at this time in our lives, and she expressed the wish that we could have skipped the painful years that had gone before, and come right to this joyful time. We appreciated the love at the core of her wish. And we knew that it simply doesn't work that way. We would not have been here, at the start of this loving marriage, had we not lived through the years that had preceded it. The painful experiences, and the ways in which we had learned and grown from them, had unquestionably been part of what had allowed us to reach this present time.

With these experiences in mind, I came with a fresh perspective to the classic question regarding this week's parashah: the problem of God hardening Pharaoh's heart. How can we understand God causing Pharaoh's heart to harden, and then punishing him for it? This aspect of the story is problematic: It is unjust and unforgiving on God's part, and an affront to our belief in free will.

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak sheds new light on this question for me, in explaining the following key verses: "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen to you…" (Exodus 7:3-4). Levi Yitzhak suggests that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart and the plagues ("signs and marvels") are two separate miracles, two manifestations of God's goodness.

It is surely difficult for the contemporary reader to regard the plagues — in which so many suffered and died — as a miracle, or as the act of a loving God. Yet Levi Yitzhak asks us to consider that Pharaoh's evil nature, the plagues themselves and Pharaoh's protracted resistance to God's command to liberate the Israelites are all essential to the Yetsi'at Mitzrayim/Exodus experience. Without this extended period of suffering, we would not have become who we are as a people.

By this logic, we may understand God's repeated statement "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh" differently. Perhaps this is not the Supreme Being literally reaching into Pharaoh's heart to make it impervious to compassion. Rather, perhaps God is saying, "This is the way the Exodus story will unfold. I will bring plagues, and Pharaoh will continue to resist, and this period of suffering will go on for a long time."

In this reading, God does not malevolently manipulate the heart of Pharaoh to bring more drama to the story. Rather, the Divine foresees that this struggle will be a protracted one and asks us to trust that the present suffering will come to an end — in fact, that the time of pain is a necessary part of the story.

This way of thinking has limits, of course. If given the choice, we would absolutely prefer to go through our lives lacking the wisdom that we gain in times of loss and upheaval. We would much rather stay shallow and unenlightened than lose loved ones or experience trauma. Yet much as we may rail against this dimension of life, we have no choice about it. This is just the way it is: We learn things in the midst of suffering that we do not learn in any other way.

Surely one must never tell a person in pain, "Don't worry. It will all come out fine in the end." Nor does it generally help to tell ourselves, in the midst of our own suffering, that we will surely learn from the experience. We do not want this learning, and besides, it will not be visible until much time has passed.

Yet the Torah tells us that God brought our people just such a message, promising that the time of travail will be long and difficult, but that we will emerge from it. In the midst of our own difficult times — individually and collectively, may we hear this message and find comfort in it.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.