This week’s Torah portion is Bo. The last four plagues descend upon Egypt because of Pharaoh’s obstinacy. He did not want to see what was before him. That a power greater than himself was demanding that he change his frame of reference. That God was urging him to rethink his identity-that he was human not a god himself. That God was demanding that Pharaoh look inward and re-order his universe. Sadly, the consequences for Egypt were devastating. Resulting in death of the first born from the royal class in the palace to the lowest class of slaves says the Torah. From those who walked about in freedom in Egypt to those who were imprisoned and all first-born animals as well. The last and final plague brought on Egypt was because Pharaoh was entrenched in his ways. He chose a path that refused to affirm equality and justice and life.
What happens when we are obstinate in our thinking or ways of being in the world? From the outside looking in we might say God hardened our heart. But is it just God’s doing? Or do we also have free will? To act in the world? The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches us that even though all is foreseen, humanity has free will. God may know the many possible outcomes but does not interfere in our ability to choose.
Our great teacher Rambam, Moses Maimonides contemplated this idea. In Hilchot TeshuvaA 5:1 (The Laws of Return)
1. Free will is granted to all. If one desires to turn to the path of good and be righteous,
the choice is the individual. Should one desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is the individuals .
We can choose, good or evil, life or death. But we are urged to choose life and righteousness by the way we live out Jewish values and ideals.
Thus our Torah teaches us to choose life whenever and wherever possible.
Pharaoh through his unwillingness to change, through his inability to see the change in the world around him also does not affirm life.
Our inheritance as a people is that the journey toward freedom, equality and justice is a life-affirming path and this is precisely why the Jew is always concerned with these ideals. Our exodus from Egypt imprinted the Jewish soul with these concerns and this is why we Jews must be involved in these noble pursuits.
Michael Walzer, in his book Exodus and Revolution (pg 10) wrote:
The Israelites are not, after all, magically transported to the Promised land; they are not carried on the “eagle’s wings” of Exodus 19; they must march to get there, and the march is full of difficulties, crises, struggles, all realistically presented, as if to invite human as well as divine resolution.
The Exodus story that we read this week is a partnership story of God and the Israelites. The journey towards freedom begins in Parshat Bo as they travel forth. Perhaps we each need to examine the way in which we dig our own heels in ala Pharaoh, or are we willing to march to a new kind of spiritual freedom and liberation from our enslavements by looking inside and outside to the new possibilities in ourselves and the world. Affirm Life. Let us pray we do so with God’s help!