In our desire to provide you with the teaching of Messiah Yeshua in a Jewish context, we provide in-depth teachings of the weekly Torah portions throughout the year. Below are various perspectives from various teachers and staff members from Netivyah Bible Instruction ministry.

Joseph Shulam: The True Name of God [2021]

The Torah reading this week is so appropriate for what is going on in the whole world and in the land of Israel, plagues, and being stricken by God both the people and the land of Egypt. The Torah reading is from Exodus chapter 6:2 – 9:35, Vaera, from the prophets, the Haftarah is from Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21. The reading from the New Testament is from Romans 9:14-23.

The text from Exodus 6:2 starts:

“And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them.’” – Exodus 6:2–3 [NKJV]

This beginning of the reading for this next Shabbat is a true bombshell. It is an atomic bomb that the Lord drops on Moses and the children of Israel and in fact on all of us!

Why? Because if we go to the book of Genesis already in the story of Creation we see that the whole chapter 1 of Genesis uses only the name “God” – “Elohim”. However in chapter 2:4 we see a change and the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) appears for the first time in the Bible.

In the book of Genesis alone the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) appears 15 times. In the whole Bible the proper name of God (YHWH) appears 6828 times. The whole story of Genesis has several hundred times, the name of God in the four Hebrew letters.

So, now we come to the book of Exodus and the Lord says to Moses, “I am the Lord (YHWH), but to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I only appeared as God Almighty (El-Shadai).”

The fathers of the nation, those who had such a personal relationship with the Almighty God, Abraham, that didn’t spare his son Isaac and tied him on the altar ready to sacrifice him, didn’t know the Lord by His most holy name? Let us go to Genesis 22:14 and see what is written there:

“And Abraham called the name of the place, The–Lord–Will–Provide; as it is said to this day, ‘In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’” – Genesis 22:14 [NKJV]

Abraham from his own mouth says: The Lord (YHWH) will provide. So, dear brothers! What is going on here? How could Abraham say the name of the Lord and celebrate that God provided a ram in place of his only son Isaac, and call that place, “The Lord will provide,” and not know the Lord’s name? It is also clear already in the book of Exodus’ earlier chapters that the writer of Exodus knows the Lord’s name to be YHWH.

See for example Exodus 3:13-15:

“Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ Moreover God said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’” – Exodus 3:13-15 [NKJV]

So, what is going on here? The Torah was written according to tradition by Moses before his climbing Mount Pisga (Nebo) and dying there. When Moses writes the Torah, it is after the events in chapter 6 of the book of Exodus. Moses now knows that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, didn’t have the full revelation of the Lord, a revelation that Moses and the children of Israel are about to experience personally in the next months.

The name Elohim (God) is generic and plural. The proper name, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is unique and special. Outside of Israel there is only one place in the edges of the Arabian desert that this name is found in a small shrine dated to the second millennium B.C.E.

All the rest of the history of this Holy Name of the Lord is only in the possession of Israel. The Lord didn’t risk giving this revelation of His holy name to the patriarchs because they were individuals, their faith was, so to speak, in the family. They were far from being a nation or even a tribe.

To hand the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) name of God to such a relatively small group of people who are not crystalized and ready for such a unique name and so different from the people and neighborhood that they moved in, would have, maybe, been too much for them. El-Shadai – “God Almighty” was not a name so unique in the religious environment of the Land of Canaan or Egypt or even in Ur or Haran in Mesopotamia.

The God El was the father of the Canaanite Pantheon and Shadai is “mountain” or “power”. The name El-Shadai is a kind of generic name very similar to the names of the gods of the nations around.

Now that Moses is about to take on the great empire of Egypt, Pharaoh and His army, and deliver the slaves from Egypt – He and the children of Israel had to have the full force of God’s power and revelation of His holy name.

So, before God launches Moses to face Pharaoh and his court, God gives this revelation to Moses, and tells him, “in all my dealings with the forefathers of this nation, they had a limited revelation of who I really am, now I am revealing to you that I am the master of time and existence, not only a god like all the other gods. I am not an idol like the idols of Canaan and Egypt and Mesopotamia. I am the existence of everything that exists. Everything that your eyes see and even your eyes with which you see is ‘I AM!’”

“The world is the fruit of my ‘existence’ – it came from its beginning out of nothingness into a tangible and functioning atmosphere of life and into a life-giving and life-perpetuating ‘existence!’ You can go and face Pharaoh and all of Egypt because I am ‘YHWH.’”

Just yesterday a friend asked me if I knew how to pronounce the name of the Lord (YHWH). I told him that even in the time of Yeshua and the apostles the vast majority of Israel, including all the great rabbis and leaders of the nation, didn’t know how to pronounce the holy name of God because they couldn’t read it.

In the manuscripts of the Torah and the prophets and the Psalms written by hand by scribes, the four letters that make up the holy name of God were often not written in the Aramaic Hebrew script like the rest of the Torah and the Bible. The four letters were written in the ancient Canaanite script that most of the people, including the rabbis, didn’t know how to pronounce. This is how the name of God was written in the time of Yeshua:

The bottom line is regular Hebrew like modern Hebrew of today, it is Aramaic script from after the Babylonian Exile. The most ancient texts have the name of God in the Canaanite script.

There are these days so many Christian sects (dangerous sects) that pretend to know how to pronounce the holy name of God. They are divisive and aggressive sectarians who fight with each other and with the rest of the believing world as to how to pronounce this holy name.

The main thing that exemplifies these groups is that they are not Jewish, they are not formally educated, and they are very sectarian. Jews, when they read the Torah and come upon the Holy Name of God pronounce it: Adonai (Lord). This is also how the proper English translations have it written: Lord.

There is one more general thing that I would like to share with you! All of the Bible is built on the paradigm of progressive revelation. God does not reveal everything all at once. Revelation is progressive, it is given to us in the Bible on the basis of “Need to Know!” Our forefathers did not know much about the Messiah or a heavenly Kingdom, or about heaven and hell, and judgment day, or the Millennium…

The Lord sends His revelation to His children on a need-to-know basis. He also does not reveal everything right away, not even to the leaders and prophets, but as the information is needed the Lord opens up His secrets and delivers them to His faithful children. Yeshua did the same thing with His disciples and at times He gave them a revelation and told them to keep it to themselves and not share it with unbelievers.

What we are seeing is that this Torah reading is also on a need-to-know basis. Moses doesn’t receive the ultimate detailed plan of God for the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. The Lord gives Moses a step-by-step revelation that He needs to share with Pharaoh. The same is true today.

There are things that are hinted at in scripture that even the most educated leaders in the church can’t really pinpoint and give you a clear and total outline of what God is going to do in the end time or when and how exactly Yeshua will return. The whole doctrine of the so-called Millennium is a cause of division and argument and sectarian attitudes precisely because the Lord didn’t give us a spelled out, clearly outlined, dated, Power Point presentation of when and how, or of what is going to happen when He returns to judge the world.

Anyone today that teaches or says that he knows exactly how and when the Messiah is returning is someone who claims to know more than Yeshua Himself knows. Therefore the only title that I could give such a person would be: False Prophet.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” – Matthew 24:36 [NKJV]

The day will come when we will all know everything that we need to know, but for now, let us learn of the great works that the Lord did in Egypt before releasing the children of Israel from slavery and bringing them to the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel as an everlasting inheritance and an eternal possession.

Joseph Shulam: Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? [2020]

The Torah reading this Shabbat is Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35). From the prophets the reading is from Ezekiel 28:25-29:21. From the New Testament the reading is from Romans 9:14-33.

Now to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by the Almighty God, the creator of the world. The question that is asked is, why does God, the creator of the world and father of all mankind, use such a measure as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?

If the objective is only the release of the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, would it not be more expedient and faster to just allow Pharaoh to release and send the children of Egypt out to freedom and return to the land of Canaan given to them by the Almighty God?

The first thing that we must remember is Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites leave Egypt and be free from slavery. This is what complicated the situation and invited God’s intervention – God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3).

This could give us the impression that Pharaoh did not have a real free will. Pharaoh had total free will when Moses and Aaron first demanded of Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh consulted with his wisemen and magicians, and preferred to follow their advice rather to hear Moses and Aaron, who spoke in the name of the one and only creator of the world.

Pharaoh’s obstinance and refusal to let Israel leave Egypt started a competition and a duel between Moses, representing God, and Pharaoh, representing Egypt and the Egyptian gods. The ten plagues which God inflicted on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let Israel leave Egypt were not only plagues against the people of Egypt, but also against the gods of the Egyptians.

Blood was against the god of the Nile river, the lifeline of Egypt. Other of the plagues were against the gods of the livestock of Egypt, and others against the sun god, who was one of the main gods of Egypt. The competition and struggle was not only between Moses and Pharaoh, but between the One God of Israel who created the whole world, and the idolatrous Egyptians who worshiped many gods.

Freedom for Israel was ultimately the demonstration of the God of Israel’s power, the One God against the multitude of gods. The Hebrew nation was the candle in the wind, the light for the rest of history of mankind as a demonstration of the One God and the victory over the idols of Egypt.

This is why God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, in order to demonstrate to the rest of history that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. Yes, it was needed and a necessity to delay the exodus out of Egypt to show the world forever that the deliverance of Israel from slavery into freedom was not a natural event, not a political compromise, not a financial consideration, but a designed and pre-ordered prophetic fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, as it was recorded in chapter 15 of the book of Genesis.

Only when we look at the big picture can we really understand the justice and the righteousness of God in all His actions put together. Israel become a free and independent nation, in Mount Sinai Israel received the Torah, and after 40 years resettled in their God-given homeland, the land of Israel.

Pharaoh continued to resist, ten times, until the last plague. He could have acknowledged God, but he relied on his Egyptian idols, and God demonstrated His power and His sovereignty, until Pharaoh said, “Take your people and go!”

Rashi, the great commentator of the word of God in the 13th century, notes that there was a process of increasing punishments, plague after plague. It was necessary to demonstrate God’s power – not only to the Egyptians, but to the Israelites and the world.

Rashi noted that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh himself was responsible for his hardening heart. Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” (Exodus 7:13) and then became “heavy” (Exodus 7:14). The Torah uses three different words to describe what amounts to a single description of Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon insists that all mankind has free will. Everyone can choose to do good, or bad. The ability to choose freely defines us as human beings, our choices define us as humans. The freedom to choose is an essential and inherent human right, but we must remember that our choices always have consequences to our choices and actions.

Pharaoh’s heart became “heavy” and hardened, because he didn’t want to lose such a valuable financial commodity – slaves, cheap labor. He refuses to change, even when he recognizes God’s existence, his arrogant heart, which is described as “his heart was strengthened”, was the cause that brought plague after plague upon Egypt and his nation, and finally on his own family.

This fate has been the fate of every Jew leader and nation. The world needs to look to history and see that God’s promises to Abraham are valid today as they were in the days of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, ancient Rome, and Byzantium, Germany’s Hitler… and the leaders of Iran are standing in line to experience the same fate as all their predecessors who hate and promote hate against God’s chosen people.

Please don’t forget God’s promises to our father Abraham. This is the paradigm of history in relationship to all of God’s children. The good is good forever, and the evil is in need of repentance and change to fall in line with God’s eternal program for the redemption of the whole human race. The Bible is life and gives life to those who don’t harden their hearts against the Father of all mankind.

Pray for Israel and for the salvation of Israel, because of there is nothing surer and more set-in-stone than God’s promise, “All Israel shall be saved!” (Romans 11:26)

Invest in sharing good and love and good news with the Jewish nation in the land of Israel. Invest in prayer for Israel, invest in the “household of God”, as the apostle Paul said. Invest financially to enable us to continue to feed the hungry and share the good news, publish material, teach and lecture around the world, and especially build up the local fellowship in Jerusalem.

Joseph Shulam: A Rabbinical Perspective on Pharaoh [2019]

This coming Shabbat the reading is Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35), the reading from the prophets, the haftara, is from Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21, and from the New Testament Luke 11:14-22.

The main story of this reading is the Lord’s plagues on Egypt and on the household of Pharaoh. The big question in these chapters is why the Lord was using these horrible plagues on Egypt.

Why did the Lord not soften the heart of Pharaoh and motivate him to just let these stiff-necked Israelites go? The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh several times so that Pharaoh would not release the Israelites so quick.

Here are three times that the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh:

“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 7:3 [NKJV]

On this text Rashi (one of the greatest medieval commentators of the Hebrew Bible) says on Exodus 7: 3,

And I will make it difficult (harden his heart), since he has been convicted and defiant before me, and before the nations of the world. The nations of the word are not happy for me to give him heart to return to me (repent). And I will say: “But you shall see me, and you shall learn the moral lesson from your defiance. Although in the first five plagues I did not harden your heart but strengthened your heart O Pharaoh.”

What Rashi says here is that God gave Pharaoh five plagues without hardening his heart, but actually strengthening Pharaoh’s heart.

There is another phrase that is translated in the English as “harden the heart”. However, in this second phrase that appears also in Exodus chapter 4:21 and in 7:13, and all through the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh himself “strengthens his heart”. He becomes stubborn and refuses to release the children of Israel out of slavery and out of Egypt (this second phrase appears in the following places in the word of God: Exodus 4:21, 7:13,22, 8:19, 9:12,35, 10:20,27, 11:10, 14:4,8,17).

In all these texts, and many more through the Bible, God looks into people’s hearts and sees that they are defiant, and blasphemers, and they challenge God and His authority in the world. At this point God says to Himself, “I cannot allow this kind of behavior to continue and to challenge My authority and place among the nations of the world. For this reason, I will allow Pharaoh in this case to follow his own inclination and defiance. So that the world will see where disobedience and disrespect for Me leads and in the end Pharaoh and his nation and the whole world will know that there is a creator of this world who both loves and rewards and punishes His children in the whole world.”

These are my words for explaining why at times God hardens people’s hearts and allows them to follow their own desire and inclination even to the bitter end. The reason is one God wants all men the world over to know Him, and to be wise and know that there is a God and rules of conduct in His creation.

We should all know that God, as our Father, the Father of all of His creation, has limits for both His grace and His love, and also limits to His wrath and anger. For each one of us and our nations, we ought to be careful not to transgress and ignore God’s limits on either side of His spectrum.

Joseph Shulam: God’s Name Revealed to Moses [2017]

This Shabbat reading is from Exodus 6:2-8:35. The very first verse of this portion is a bit of a shock to most people who read the Bible carefully.

In the book of Genesis, we find the Tetragrammaton (the four letters that comprise the name of God – “yodh”, “he”, “waw” and “he”) 165 times. So, now we have the revelation that until the moment when Moses is about to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” the only revelation that God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was of “God Almighty”.

God clearly states that our forefathers did not know His name as “Jehovah”. What can we learn from this statement that God reveals to Moses?

Revelation is progressive. God revealed His identity and His plan for humanity progressively. That is, bit by bit, inch by inch. Yeshua himself states this very clearly:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” – John 16:12 [ESV]

What are the implications of progressive revelation?

  1. God does not tell us the end from the beginning.
  2. God speaks to us in human language, a language that we can understand. Our Jewish tradition states that Torah (God’s ultimate revelation, the Law of Moses) speaks to us in human language, and it is “not in the Heaven” – it is down here on Earth.
    • The implications are that it is given to us in a language that we can understand. Not only the language, but also the content is geared for us to understand.
    • God’s commandments are reasonable and not difficult. Yeshua said it in a very clear way: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29–30 NKJV)
    • What we know today about God and the way He works among men was not known in previous generations. Therefore, the apostle Paul said: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NKJV)

“And God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them.” – Exodus 6:2,3 [NKJV]

The new revelation that God gives to Moses is the most amazing truth of the whole Bible. You see, the children of Israel before Moses were worshiping a God of power. A God that is in some ways not that much different from the gods of their neighbors.

He was a personal god to the fathers of the nation. He was a god who had a relationship with the children of Abraham.

God was a god of a people, not a place, and He did not reside in a house (temple) made by man’s hands. God went with the people, He went with the individuals.

Like in the case of Jacob going north to Haran, and stopping to sleep in Bethel. God reveled Himself to Jacob in the dream, as his personal guide and protector.

The first time that we see and hear of God being a national God is in the giving of the Torah in Mount Sinai. The answer that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai next to the burning bush was:

“And God said to Moses, ‘I Am who I Am.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I Am has sent me to you.”’ Moreover God said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.”’” – Exodus 3:14,15 [NKJV]

There is a major change happening here. The change is from a personal god, that goes with the family, to a god of time, a god who reveals himself in time and through time.

The Word “I am” or “to be” is a time word. This switch and new revelation is a major change in relations, and of course of demands.

From this moment on, the God of Israel is dealing with a nation, and has national demands of the people and of their leaders. From this point on, Moses does not represent his family or his tribe.

Moses is a national representative of God and His people. The God that Moses serves is a god of history. History is a sequential set of connected events on a timeline.

This is precisely the importance of this revelation and the significance of prophecy. Prophecy can only have a meaning if it is a proclamation of the one who controls time and events.

This ought to make it easier for us to understand the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In the Hebrew it is clearly visible in the language.

Pharaoh hardens the life of the Israelites with hard labor, and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. There is here a classic “measure for measure”.

As you already know, Yeshua gave a very clear teaching on this issue:

“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” – Matt 7:2 [NKJV]

This is why the last revelation is the most authoritative one!

Joseph Shulam: Points on the Art of Negotiation [2016]

This week all the synagogues in the world are going to read Exodus 6:2- 9:35. This is the story of the negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh.

There is much to learn about negotiation from the word of God, and negotiation is a part of life that all of us participate in from birth till death. For this reason it is important for us to learn from the wisdom of God of how to best negotiate with the “opposition”. Let us look at this lesson from the word of God.

  1. God appoints Moses to go and deliver the people of Israel out of Egypt. Moses does not feel that he is qualified for the job. Moses argues with God, and if you count, Moses goes three rounds with God, and God wins in the end. How is it that God wins the argument with Moses?
  2. God has made a decision and He is absolutely sure that He is right and is not willing to take a “no” for an answer! Some might call this stubbornness, others ought to call it determination and assurance that this is the right thing to do.
  3. God’s willingness to hear the other side’s (Moses’) reasons for rejecting the offer, and to give a one-on-one response to every objection. Moses says, “I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue”. God answers Moses: “Who do you think made man’s mouth and who makes some people dumb or deaf, seeing or blind. Is it not me, the Lord?”
  4. When negotiating, give your opposition the time and the respect to make his side of the argument and respond point by point, concentrating on a proper logical response.
  5. You can’t negotiate with people for whom you have no respect and/or you feel superior to. You have to look at people on eye level and respect their dignity. Only in this way you can really negotiate and win.
  6. When you win the negotiation to your satisfaction, make practical steps to quickly seize the opportunity to do what you negotiated and put it into action. It does not pay to spend energy to negotiate and then be lax in putting into action or catching the object of your negotiation. Don’t negotiate now if you are not ready now to put the object of your negotiation into action.
  7. Moses does not go alone in the negotiation with Pharaoh. He comes with Aaron, his brother. Moses states the goal of his negotiation right out in the beginning: “Let my people go!” This is an outrageous demand. What makes this so outrageous is that here you have a person who, for forty years, has been a fugitive from the law, and without much self-confidence.
  8. Being a discouraged and depressed person is not a permanent situation, for anyone. A person can change. God can equip a person of that demeanor and enable him to stand tall in front of his opponents.
  9. Moses was assured, and sure of the righteousness of his demand from Pharaoh. You can’t negotiate if you have any doubts of the righteousness of your demands. You have to know for sure that you are sure that your demands are righteous and just.
  10. There is no room for compromise when you are sure of your righteous demands.
  11. Your stubbornness or determination is not out of your selfish, greedy motives, but out of a much bigger mission of doing the right thing, and being a blessing to your greater goals in life, your people, your nation, your family, your community, your divine mission in life. Only when you are not “working” to satisfy your greed and your selfish ambition can you stand firm and not compromise.
  12. You must have some “tricks up your sleeve” to demonstrate to the other side that you are strong, capable, independent, and able to withstand anything that the other side can dish out (the different powerful demonstrations of the plagues that God brought against Egypt). You might say to yourself, “I am not God and God did not appoint me to this job. I don’t have any such powers.” You might not have the same scope of “signs and wonders” that Moses received from God, but you can think of some demonstration of your powers. Among “signs and wonders” that you can pull out of your bag are historical events and previous accomplishments that can point to your record and your previous successes.

I don’t know if this is helpful to you, but reading again the book of Exodus is inspiring me to be strong, determined, uncompromising for everything that is clearly true and pure in the word of God. From my experience in negotiating in the Jerusalem Old City market, I learned that weakness or lack of confidence does not help you in negotiation.

We have to be kind and controlled, and to respect the other side, but at the same time believe in what you want and be sure that it is not selfish and motivated by greed, and that as a child of God you have God’s interest to be your interest for the greater good.

Yehuda Bachana: Do We Have Free Will? [2018]

Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Yehuda Bachana.

Passover is one of the main feasts in The Scriptures due to its motif of redemption, salvation, and the creation of God’s people. Passover is the connection between God and a nation, “…you will be my people, and I will be your God.” On Passover we drink four cups of wine which describe and represent the four stages of redemption from Egypt. This is based on the first verses from this week’s Torah portion:

…I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God… – Exodus 6:6b,7a [NIV]

From being a nation of slaves without any natural chance of attaining freedom, we became a nation that bears the banner of faith throughout the ages. During the Lord’s Supper, I believe that Yeshua took the third cup, the one called “Redemption” and said, “This is me, I am the Redemption.” The Lord’s Supper is based on the redemption of Yeshua the Messiah, who brings us out of slavery to sin and redeems us with His blood.

I’d like to share a thought regarding the ten plagues that started in Parashat Vayeira. We understand from the portion that after the plagues occurred, Egypt changed drastically. It was no longer a place of refuge in the event of a famine. In fact, post-plague Egypt was a broken country.

I think that 99% of all commentators have tried to find the answer to the following question: Why was there a need for ten plagues, instead of one particularly devastating plague, in order to set the people of Israel free? The answer that the Torah offers is:

…That you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord. – Exodus 10:2 [NIV]

The reason was simple, during the ten plagues, the Egyptian superpower was humiliated together with its idols, before the creator of the world. God says:

…So you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. – Exodus 9:14 [NIV]

Everyone witnessed the might of an all-powerful God, a God who controlled nature and even death. God’s intent is evident, today we still discuss and learn about the Exodus from Egypt, even after about 3400 years. For instance, every week during Kabbalat Shabbat:

…As a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.

A Theological Challenge

Netivyah | Parashat Vaera | Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family (1537)
Who is responsible for Pharaoh’s hardness of heart – God or Pharaoh? Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family (1537)

In the Exodus, God revealed His mighty hand, His strength, His utter dominance, to us as well as to our future generations. I want to ask a deeper question, beyond the focus of the ten plagues. When I read our Torah portion as well as next week’s, I immediately encounter an invigorating theological challenge. One of the most well-known sentences regarding the plagues of Egypt is:

…For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials… – Exodus 10:1b [NIV]

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron… – Exodus 9:12a [NIV]

We run into an issue at this point, what exactly happened to Pharaoh’s free will?

Does God interfere with the heart and mind, deciphering for us how to act?

The question therefore arises: What will we be judged for? For our sin or for a hardness of heart that God chose for us? In fact, the question is, if God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – what is He punishing him for?

There are believers who claim that God chooses who exactly will believe in Him from the beginning, there is no free will, everything is decided by the Almighty. It’s been decided ahead of time who will be saved and who will not, which is known as predestination.

Our belief is that every person has the power and the ability to choose whether to follow the path of God or not. We have free will, which is a gift from God. This idea is supported in the book of Deuteronomy:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. – Deuteronomy 30:15 [NIV]

…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live… – Deuteronomy 30:19b [NIV]

Why would God say “choose” if indeed we have no free will? I believe that sin is our free choice, that we are the ones who seek out the sin and open ourselves up to all kinds of temptations.

One of the elders of our congregation once told me a humorous story that I want to share with you: A known rabbi and teacher entered a classroom in order to lecture and he saw that his students were in the middle of a conversation that abruptly stopped when he entered the class. The rabbi was interested in what the conversation was about, but the students did not want to let the rabbi know, and only after much prodding did the students let the rabbi in on their conversation. It turns out that they were talking about how the evil inclination (yetzer hara) is chasing them, and always trying to tempt them. The rabbi simply smiled and answered, “You have nothing to worry, for now you are the ones chasing after the evil inclination.”

Sin exists inside each of us, and we will be judged for our actions. The fact is, we have the ability to overcome sin, because if not, what then will we be judged for?

Do We Have Free Will?

Every person is responsible for his or her own actions, and we cannot blame others for our choices, mistakes, or sins.

…But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die. – Genesis 2:17 [NIV]

In Genesis we read that God commands Adam not to eat from the tree. This means that there is a prohibition, but this presents two options. God created man with the ability to choose and decide – even if it is not always what’s best for man. God gave us the option to sin, but I want to emphasize the fact that God also gave us the option to choose what is right and holy.

Let’s go back to Pharaoh – how did God harden Pharaoh’s heart without harming his right to free will? Some say that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a punishment. Pharaoh was a evil king and he enslaved the people of Israel. Perhaps he had reached such a threshold of evil and sin that God punished him and hardened his heart in order to bring down all ten plagues on the Egyptians.

I read an insightful commentary. It opened my eyes to the fact that we tend to forget how Pharaoh actually made efforts to reach a compromise with Moses. During the negotiations, Pharaoh offered suggestions that seemed reasonable, but they contained only a partial answer to Moses’ demands. Moses rejected every suggestion, after pointing out why each one did not meet the needs of his people. This exchange between Pharaoh and Moses may seem unnecessary, but if we read it carefully, we come to the answer of how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

We will delve further into this topic during the coming week. Until then, Shabbat Shalom.

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