Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Here it is, the second week of January, and some of us are still sticking to our New Year’s resolutions. Others of us, not so much. Two weeks into the year and some have been to the gym as they had planned — three times each week at 5:30 a.m, are still on their new diets — no fat, low carb, more veggies, and are being kinder to their loved ones — “That’s alright, Dear. Insurance will pay for a new car door.” Others, not so much.
It should come as no surprise that in the long run the “others,” the ones who fail to realize what they had resolved to do, far outnumber the “some,” the ones who actually succeed. The success rate after a year, in fact, is only about 8%, according to a study by the University of Scranton. (See: http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/. Surprisingly, the success rate after the first two weeks is actually 71%.)
Why such a high rate of failure over time? Here is one explanation, among many:
Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate. (See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201012/why-new-years-resolutions-fail)
In other words, no matter how much we want to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, unless we’re ready to change the way we do things, it simply isn’t going to happen.
Take, for example, Pharaoh, the same Pharaoh that appears in our current series of weekly Torah readings, the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” enslaves the Hebrews, and not only refuses to let them ago upon Moses’ insistence but makes their lives increasingly miserable. It takes ten plagues from God before Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. During four of these plagues he promised Moses that he would let the people go and then reneges once the plague is lifted, each time he becomes stubborn and his “heart hardens.” Even if throughout the first nine plagues Pharaoh had wanted to let the people and avoid future calamities, he just couldn’t shake the hardness from his heart and become a more conciliatory leader. He wasn’t ready to change his habits.
Early in the narrative, Pharaoh convinces himself that the signs from Moses’ God are no big deal. Twice, he sees that his own magicians can do the same “trick” as Moses: They can change water to blood and bring frogs up onto the land. (The magicians tried to replicate Moses’ feat with lice, the third plague, but they could not.) Why should Pharaoh change if what Moses is showing him isn’t all that unusual? Perhaps, Pharaoh thinks his behavior is normal and acceptable. Thus, when Pharaoh promises to free the people if Moses can make all the frogs go away, he has little incentive to follow through.
Over time the plagues get worse. After insects attack humans and cattle, after hail obliterates all living beings out in the open, including grass and trees, and after the darkness falls and immobilizes all the Egyptians, Pharaoh promises to let the people go if Moses makes the plagues go away, but time and again, he become stubborn. His heart hardens. Even mounting pressure from his own courtiers, who have come to fear the God of the Hebrews, can’t convince Pharaoh that change is necessary, that Egypt’s very survival depends on Pharaoh’s letting the Hebrews go.
That the Pharaoh of Exodus is wicked and evil is without question. But who’s to say that, during some of those later plagues when he said he would let the people go, he didn’t actually intend to make good on the promise? Isn’t it possible that at least during the plague of darkness Pharaoh sincerely resolved to soften his heart and let Israel go, but when it came time to fulfill the resolution, he simply couldn’t because he wasn’t ready to change?
Far from suggesting that any of us are evil like, I believe the Pharaoh can be an effective metaphor for our own intransigence. Despite all we know about the good that will come about as a result of changing our habits, we still very often don’t take the steps necessary to effect that change and bring about that good. With Pharaoh, all the evidence says that letting Israel go from Egypt will lead to a termination of the terror befalling Egypt and an overall improvement of conditions for all concerned. Despite the evidence, though, Pharaoh won’t or can’t have a change of heart. In our lives, we can know for sure that changing the way we eat or exercise or relate to the people around us or any number of lifestyle changes will significantly improve our lives, perhaps even extend our lives. There is science to prove it. Yet, when faced with a choice, we opt for the status quo. We won’t or can’t change our habits, even though our situation may worsen.
There is no magic pill for producing the change we desire. For Pharaoh, change came only after seeing the death of his first born, and even then change came reluctantly. To be sure, Pharaoh actively sought to undo the change he had permitted. Even Moses takes on the role of liberator assigned to him by God after much protest. He wasn’t ready to become the new person God wanted him to be.
Though Moses is hardly a perfect role model for all matters, (for example, I wouldn’t look to Moses as an exemplar of anger management or work-life balance), Moses’s process of transforming himself into a leader, liberator, and law maker is instructive for us as we seek to fulfill our resolutions. What did Moses do that Pharaoh didn’t? He opened himself to encouragement and feedback. God didn’t acquiesce when Moses pushed back against the call to free his people, but rather kept helping Moses see how he could overcome the obstacles that Moses believed would prevent him from being the person God wanted him to be. Moses listened when God spoke. In addition, God provided Moses with a network and means to maximize Moses’s probabilities for success: Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, Joshua and others all came to Moses’s aid at crucial times to help him lead Israel through difficult times. Moses accepted the help from people he loved and trusted. Pharaoh, meanwhile, neither listened to his trusted advisors nor would he have accepted their help if offered.
As we continue reading about our redemption from bondage in Egypt, let us be mindful of the ways we’d like to feel freer in our own lives. Let us resolve to loosen the shackles of habits that keep us from experiencing optimal health or realizing our full potential. Resolving to change, after all, is a necessary first step. More importantly, though, let us muster the will to bring about that change. Rather than harden our hearts and dig in our heals, let us hear that call to change that propels us forward. Let us be our own liberators, our own Moses-es, allowing those around us to motivate us and support us in our work. Let us grow in faith, as did Moses, to know that we can overcome the odds and truly make a difference.