Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Happy New Year 2023! As we celebrate Shabbat on this New Year’s Eve, many of us are contemplating resolutions for the new year. Actually going to the gym where you’re a member but having been there since your introductory tour. Cutting back on ice cream. Making more time for family. Tackling those big projects that you’ve been putting off for months or years.
When push comes to shove, some of us will not only begin to address our resolutions, but actually fulfill them. Others of us, maybe not. We might make an attempt, but there’s a good chance we’ll putter out before we even make it to the end of the on ramp. 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. Too often, we harden our hearts against the things that we know are in our best interest. In this respect, most of us are like Pharaoh, who probably wanted to be a good guy but his hardened heart wouldn’t let him.
Pharaoh, the one “who knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Israelites, figures prominently in the current series of weekly Torah readings. Pharaoh not only refuses to let Israel go upon Moses’ insistence, but he actually makes their lives increasingly miserable and, consequently, makes his own life and the life of ordinary Egyptians miserable as well. It takes ten plagues from God before Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. During four of these plagues he promises Moses that he will let the people go but reneges each time those plagues are lifted. Each time he becomes stubborn, his “heart hardens.”
He isn’t ready to change his habits. Even if throughout the first nine plagues Pharaoh wants to let the people go in order to avoid future calamities, he just can’t shake the hardness from his heart. He can’t become the conciliatory leader he needs to be in the moment. Even mounting pressure from his own courtiers, who have come to fear the God of the Hebrews, is insufficient to convince Pharaoh that change is necessary, that Egypt’s very survival depends on his letting the Hebrews go. That maybe his own survival also depends on it.
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 says he will let the people go, he doesn’t actually intend to make good on the promise? Isn’t it possible that at least during the plague of darkness Pharaoh is sincere in his desire to let Israel go, but just as he begins to fulfill his resolution, he runs after them because he simply isn’t ready to change?
Pharaoh is an effective metaphor for our own intransigence. Despite knowing how good it will be for us to change our habits, we still 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 eating healthier, getting more exercise, being kinder, or just getting stuff done that we want to get done will significantly improve our lives, perhaps even extend our lives. 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 comes only after seeing the death of his first born, and even then change comes reluctantly. To be sure, as I mentioned earlier, Pharaoh actively seeks to undo the change he had begun.
To be fair to Pharaoh and to ourselves, we should remember how reluctant Moses was to take on the role of liberator. When commanded by God, Moses protested. Moses, too, was not ready to change and become the person God wanted him to be.
Unlike Pharaoh, though, Moses did change. He did pursue the resolutions he had set for himself upon receiving his marching orders from God. Moses succeeded in transforming himself into a leader, liberator, and law maker.
What did Moses do that Pharaoh didn’t do? Moses 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 and Joshua 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 accepted their help.
What if we surround ourselves with people who will encourage us? What if we open ourselves to those who love us and are willing to support us in making the changes we seek? That support network, that cheering squad, might not exist at this moment, but if we are serious about changing, we can create that network, that cheering squad, simply by asking others for help and encouragement. More often than not, the people who care about us will accompany us on our journeys toward change. They will help free us from our own hardened hearts.
As we continue reading about our redemption from bondage in Egypt this January 1st, let us be mindful of the ways we’d like to feel freer in our own lives and resolve to loosen the shackles of habits that keep us from experiencing optimal health or realizing our full potential. Resolving to change is a necessary first step. Just as important, though, let us remember that we needn’t take that journey toward change alone. Moses didn’t. Like Pharaoh, Moses once experienced a hardened heart, but ultimately Moses let God and the people around him soften his heart. We all have a little bit of Pharaoh inside us, but we can overcome our inner Pharaoh if we choose, like Moses did, to have faith and to place our trust in the people who care about us most.