As the plagues unfold things get more and more desperate for Pharaoh and the Egyptians until Pharaoh is almost ready to cave in (Ex. 10). He actually talks about letting the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness but he asks who will be going and what would they be doing, and he doesn’t like the answer.
Commenting on this impasse, Pinhas Peli quotes a story of Rabbi Chayyim of Sanz. Rabbi Chayyim asked his disciples,
“What would you do if you found a purse of money on Shabbat – would you pick it up?”
“Of course not,” said one young man. “You fool!” said the rabbi, who then turned to the second student. “Rabbi,” said that one, “I would pick it up.” “You sinner!” said the rabbi, who then looked at the third student.
“Rabbi,” said the third student, “I just don’t know. I would struggle with myself before deciding. I hope I would be able to decide properly!” “At last we have the right answer!” said Rabbi Chayyim.
Pinhas Peli applies this story to the dilemma of the Israelites in Egypt. What would they be doing when they encountered God in the wilderness? Textbook answers aren’t necessarily the answer. In Peli’s words, what the Israelites could have said was, “We shall not know how we are to worship the Lord until we get there.”
BEGINNING THE CALENDAR.
Chapter 12 of Sh’mot inaugurates the Jewish calendar: “This month (Nisan) shall be for you the beginning of the months” (Ex. 12:2).
As far as the years are concerned, tradition dates them back to Creation, with a view proposed by some scholars that the start point is when human civilisation commenced. In Judaism this year is 5775 and there have been many attempts to link up events in Jewish history with dates in the civil calendar.
There will always be problems with the civil calendar because of its inbuilt faults. For 1600 years the nations used the so-called Julian Calendar, but this was just over 11 minutes too long each year, which added up to an extra 7 days every thousand years, driving the solar and lunar calendars apart. In the 16th century Pope Gregory XII ordained that 5 October was to become 15 October that year, years were to begin on 1 January, and leap years would be every 4th year and in centenary years. The Gregorian calendar took centuries to spread through the known world: in England it was not adopted until 1750.
When rabbis get asked, as I have often been, for the exact date when certain events happened in early Christian history, there is no way the question can be precisely answered. The questioners don’t always understand that the Gregorian calendar simply did not function in those days, and to think of birth and death certificates in ancient history is an impossible dream.
In some cases the early section of Mishnah Avodah Zarah tried to identify events in the reigns of gentile kings, but events in the lives of ordinary people cannot be determined. We in Judaism are fortunate that tradition ascribes Hebrew dates to great moments, such as to say that 7 Adar was Moses’ Yarhzeit.
HARDHEARTED & TIGHTFISTED.
No-one has a good word for Pharaoh. That is, apart from a Chassidic teacher, the Rebbe of Kotzk, who said he had a sneaking admiration for the Egyptian king.
Unlike Achashverosh of Persia in the Purim story, Pharaoh was not a weakling who had no mind of his own. Once he made up his mind, he could not be budged. He could have let the Israelites go much earlier but he hardened his heart to such an extent that nothing could penetrate his obstinacy.
When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 10:20 etc.), this indicates, according to Ibn Ezra and other commentators,
“When one wishes to do wrong, opportunities are given to him”.
But if someone has an inclination to be good and to act morally, God also helps them along.
Pharaoh could make up his mind so strongly and be so obdurate that he might have applied to himself the words that some people apparently display on their office wall or desk,
“Don’t confuse me with logic: my mind’s made up!”
In his case, the suffering of others was unable to penetrate his heart.
“Don’t walk to me about compassion,”
he would have said,
“Can’t you see I’m hardhearted?”
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.