Thursday, January 26, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty and Pharaoh’s hardened heart Vayera

Aboriginal and Military men on Australia day on a navy ship
I am feeling daunted. I need to make things happen in a messy context of conflicting beliefs, ranging from relativist/postmodernist to “fundamentalist”/positivist. Some object to Muslim girls in hijabs being on an Australia day poster; others donate money to reinstate the poster and a third group who believe Australia Day itself is symbolically evil because of its celebration on a day when injustices were inflicted on Aboriginal people that lasted for many generations.

In addition, my core team at Together For Humanity is growing to 6. It was not that long ago when it was just 2 or 3. In the course of our work we deal with a range of people including genuine committed people who ‘get it’ and the insincere or misguided who present obstacles to meaningful conversations about contentious issues or our work more generally.  I need to lead this team through all of this ambiguity to get results for students, stakeholders and governments, all with their own sometimes conflicting interests, beliefs and needs.

One comforting thought that came up in discussions with some Muslim applicants during job interviews at TFH  was that “God’s will will be done”. Similarly, one religious response to the rise of a certain world leader who appears to be neither wise nor principled, is that God will guide him in accordance with the tradition that “The hearts of Kings are in the hands of God” (1).

The hunger for escape from uncertainty in faith is similar to the impulse that drives otherwise sane people to embrace a comical con-man and give him power. Yet, this comfort - of a compassionate God controlling the hearts of rulers- comes up against the reality that many rulers, past and present, have done and continue to do terrible things regardless of whatever divine influences are at play.
At a work level I trust God, myself and my team to do good and to navigate the complexities, while acknowledging that some external factors might be too difficult to overcome. I suggest that we are better off acknowledging the uncertain nature of reality (2), and that whatever divine influence there is, is more indirect and complex.  

This is a tricky topic for me. For many years I rejected the argument that ‘God didn’t do the Holocaust, men did’ (3). I grew up with a sense of God being the one that basically controlled everything. I thought: ‘Why would you pray to a God who had left the affairs of humans to the whims of sadistic tyrants?’

Like many things in Judaism there are conflicting views. In the Torah reading this week, we learn how God planned to manipulate the Pharaoh’s emotions by “hardening his heart” (4) so that he would initially ignore God’s messengers of freedom. One authority taught that in matters of the kingdom, the choices of the king are restricted by God and the king is like a messenger of God. “If these matters were given over to his choice completely just as his private activities are, this would be an astounding danger to the nation under the sovereignty of that king” (5).  

Despite the risks of out-of-control rulers, I was delighted to read the work of one of our great authorities who challenged the simple understanding that God manipulated Pharaoh’s emotions. This scholar dismissed attempts to justify divine control as very strange and difficult! (6) Instead he argued that the choices of kings are not manipulated in a puppet like fashion (7). Rather, God acts in such a way that can lead the ruler to make a particular choice. In the case of the Pharaoh, God indirectly hardened his heart by bringing plagues on the Egyptians in what seemed to be happenstance: a plague began but was not sustained. This created an opportunity for the Pharaoh to dismiss the significance of the plague as a natural occurrence.   

Another view about this is the punitive approach that explains the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an exceptional punishment for his wickedness (8). However this implies that normally kings do have free choice (9). All in all, it is fair to conclude that Judaism’s teaching about the nature of God’s intervention in the affairs of rulers is complex and that is ok.

I read a delightful thought this week about embracing complexity. “The dilemma of rigor or relevance. In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large,...while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern…” (10)

So it is clear, that a lot of what matters is inherently unclear but that is where the opportunities for contribution lie. So I take a deep breath and dive into the swamp. I am comforted by the belief that in some mysterious way my heart will be guided.   

  1. This often quoted Jewish teaching appears to be based on Proverbs 21:1 states: A king's heart is like rivulets of water in the Lord's hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it. The book of Ezra 6:22 it states: And they celebrated the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy, for the Lord made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the House of God, the God of Israel. Rashi’s commentary on Ezra 6:22 makes clear that it is God who turned the heart of the King of Assyria. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the verse is less clear. He points out that Assyria had previously destroyed the land of Israel, but now his heart was turned from his evil thoughts to good and this is the reason to strengthen their hands. It is not clear if Ibn Ezra agrees with Rashi that it is God who turned the hearts or with Sadiaa Gaon in note 7 that kings turn their own hearts. I found some of these references at
  2. See the work of Donald Schon who sees reality as inherently uncertain and complex.
  3. Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
  4. Exodus 7:3
  5. Ralbag, on Proverbs 21:1,
    אילו היה פועל המלך מסור בליבו לאלו העינינים בשלמות כדרך המסור לבחירתו פעולותיו לעצמו, היה זה העניין סכנה נפלאה (= חמורה) אל העם אשר תחת המלך ההוא" וכו'
  6. Abarbanel on Exodus 7:3
  7. Abarbanel, see also Rabbi Saadia Gaon who characterised the idea that there is some kind of supernatural divine planting of thoughts in the hearts of kings is an exaggeration, instead it is the king himself who turns his own heart as he desires, in Emunot Vdeot, Maamar 4, close to the end.
  8. Shemot Rabba, 13:4- cited in Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 1, Rashi on Exodus 7:3, Maimonides, introduction to Pirkey Avot, chapter 8. This formulation is articulated as being withheld from repentance, although this concept is also explained psychologically by Ohr HaAfelia, (Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 2- in note 2 from previous page) that being entrenched in a particular sin is itself the active factor in being withheld from repertance.
Schon, Donald

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Spiritual Striving, a Rich Litvak, a Chechen Warrior: An Inclusive 47th Birthday Farbrengen

The “Rich Litvak and the Merchants” parable was discussed at a ‘farbrengen’ at my house this week celebrating my 47th birthday.  A farbrengen is traditionally a time for Chasidic men to sit together, sing, eat and talk about the challenges and emotions of living and service. My farbrengen also featured men, but it included two Christian clergy, and an assortment of Jews with a range of identities; gay and straight, Buddhist, Rabbis and non-religious. Unfortunately, none of my Muslim male friends that attended in the past joined us this year.

We talked about the vastness of some of the challenges we encounter, how to have such a strong centre as not to lose heart.

I reflected that there were others whose lives did not endure for 47 years including a young man who recently died, aged 23, whose brother I visited the previous night. Life is fragile. Aside from whatever we do or don’t achieve in our lives, I give thanks that I am alive! I am grateful for my heart that has been pumping blood and the rest of my body that has worked for 47 years. I give thanks for the huge amount of food that has been produced and provided to me over all that time. And still, despite all the blessings I have received, I am unsure how to manage the anxieties that I and others grapple with.

So I talked about the parable (1) of the rich Litvak (Lithuanian) and the Polish businessmen who lodged in the same inn. The Litvak put his backpack down on the ground and fell asleep instantly. The merchants fussed with pillows and bedding but found sleep elusive. The Litvak explained to them in the morning that he could fall asleep because his bag was his own while their bedding belonged to others. In addition, the merchants were focused on whatever pleasure they could have on the road. There was no pleasure waiting for them at home, only aggressive creditors that would tear at them to retrieve their money. But the Litvak’s pleasure focus was ‘at home’ so what happened on the road was just a means to an end and didn’t stress him out. The purpose driven person can be less impacted by troubles along the way. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any how.” (2)

I burst into some Chasidic songs of longing and spiritual striving, some words, one in yiddish. Those who didn’t know the songs just experienced the vibe of the songs.
A few of the participants talked about striving to do good boldly but facing great obstacles. I repeated a story I heard at a conference in Indonesia from a Muslim man from Dagestan about a great Chechen warrior of the mountains named Shamil (3). Shamil had been leading the war for independence against the Russians but now found himself a prisoner in a wagon. As the wagon travelled for days, Shamil kept asking his captors ‘where are we?’ The answer every day was the same: Russia. When Shamil finally realised how vast Russia was he said that if he had known how big it was he would not have tried to fight it. Sometimes the darkness seems too formidable. Jock, one of the Christian Farbrengen participants suggested that the story might relate to the way God leads us to do great things without allowing us to see the vastness of the challenge beforehand so we don’t give up before we start.

As I start my 48th year I am determined to do what I can to bring people together despite the challenges to that task. The Farbrengen was a delightful experience of people from different walks of life, exploring the common experience of seeking to be great human beings at the same time as being only human.

  1. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, in Toldot Yaakov Yosef Vayechi.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Frankl, V. Man's Search for Meaning