Seeds from Rimon

A D'var Torah for Parashat Va-Eira 

by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman



And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Eze. 36:26)


In Parashat Va'era the Torah presents Pharaoh's response to the successive plagues meted out by God. Seven times we read the refrain that Pharaoh's heart was either "strengthened" or "hardened" after each plague. At times the phrase "v'lo shamah aleihem - and he did not listen to them" is added to the 'stiffening of the heart' phrase. Pharaoh is described repeatedly as one with an iron will, or as the Torah implies, an iron heart. He excels at shutting himself off from the suffering of others and the word of God. He appears to cultivate this skill to exquisite proportions despite the plagues, the suffering of his own people and the destruction of his land.


Eventually, in Gen. 9:12 after the sixth plague (boils) the text states that God strengthens Pharaoh's heart. From this point onward and throughout the narrative of the plagues, the text alternates between expressions of God hardening Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. All tolled, we will read of twenty instances in which Pharaoh's heart is hardened- ten times by the will of Pharaoh and ten times by the will of God.


This presents a difficulty to most contemporary readers as well as to our sages, for it appears that God is interfering with Pharaoh's free will and preventing him from the opportunity to change his ways and effect some sort of teshuvah/repentance. Nahmanides (a 13th century rabbi, philosopher, mystic and Bible commentator) basing his comments on a quote from Exodus Rabbah (a tenth cent. compilation of earlier rabbinic bible commentary), explains that God "warns him a first, second and third time, and still he does not repent, whereupon he locks the door to the possibility of repentance in order to collect His due from him for what he has sinned. So it was with the wicked Pharaoh." (Ramban on Ex. 7:3) Nahmanides understands God's actions as a form of retribution but also alludes to a self-generating process.


We can understand this in contemporary terms when we recall moments of feeling as if we have no choice in a particular circumstance. There are times when we lock ourselves into certain situations and patterns of relationships feeling that we really have no other choice. Is this ever really true? In a sense, we abdicate our ability to make a choice because we fear it may cause suffering or a level of discomfort we do not wish to experience. And sometimes our inaction is simply the nature of habitual response that blinds us to new possibilities and prevents us from truly exercising our own free-will.


In our parashah, the relationship of Pharaoh and God becomes a powerfully instructive model. After having relentlessly hardened his own heart, it appears that Pharaoh has become trapped within a self-generating process, one that is, at times, willfully created and at times completely out of his own control. He appears to have lost control over his own will/heart and becomes trapped in a karmic prison of his own design. Pharaoh has built such a superstructure of stubbornness, ego and arrogance that he becomes too dense, kaved-hard and strong to soften and untangle himself from his own prison, even if some part of him wants to.


 This type of Pharaoh lives within all human beings. Though he may view himself as a God, he is painfully recognizable to us as characteristically human. He represents the capacity in each of us to shut down our compassion for others when the ego is threatened; to stubbornly hold on to our own position, even when we know on some level that we are incorrect; to shut ourselves off from the pain of others, and to act from a place of arrogance and pride. All of these ego-qualities can create a kind of prison within which activating free will becomes impossible.


The greatest danger lies in the potential for paralysis. After a certain point, we may abdicate our free-will to a sense of inertia leaving us unable to make a new choice even if we want to. Like Pharaoh, our hearts can become frozen.


Our tradition teaches that even in this most narrow place of constriction, there is still a way to create an opening. The psalmist states, "min hameitzar karati Yah, annani bamerchav Yah- from the narrow place of constriction I called to God, and I was answered with God's wide open space." (Ps.118: 5) At times when we feel the need to make a shift but cannot find our own inner flexibility, we can turn to God for help. For simply in asking for God's help, we begin to soften and open to new possibilities. This week's parasha reminds us that God is the One who listens and remembers. Our story of redemption is initiated by God who tells Moses, "I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites... and I have remembered my covenant." (Ex. 6:5) God listens and God remembers that, which at times, we ourselves have forgotten. Our connection to the Divine is our greatest resource and our true inheritance. For though our text states that God can harden Pharaoh's heart, so too can God soften the heart, if we but call out for that help when we recognize the need.




Ellen Bernstein
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein
The Ecological Wisdom of Torah

Discover how the language in the early chapters of Genesis reveals a critically important ecological vision underlying much of the Bible. 

Rabbi Bernstein, dubbed the birth-mother of the Jewish environmental movement founded "Shomrei Adamah-Keepers of the Earth," the first Jewish environmental organization in 1988. She is the author of numerous books on Judaism and ecology including "The Splendor of Creation" and "Ecology & the Jewish Spirit."

When: SUNDAY JANUARY 13, 2013 -  1:30 - 3:00 PM
Where: Chapel of the Church on the Hill,  55 Main St. Lenox, MA
Fee: $20

To Register:  Please respond to this email or call 413-274-1034 

Spiritual Views on Death and the After-life

This forum will present the spiritual beliefs and rituals related to the process of dying, death and the after-life as understood by many of our world religions. 


Presenters will include a panel of local clergy from the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Christian Community, Muslim and Buddhist faith traditions. 


Topics will include: customs surrounding care for the deceased; the journey of the soul after death; the relationship between the living and the dead; and what these traditions teach regarding preparation for this ultimate transition.


When: SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3, 2013 -  1:30-4:00PM


Where: Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Great Barrington, MA


Fee: $10


Rabba Kaya on the road
January 14th and January 28th
Congregation K'nesset Israel
Pittsfield, MA

Creating Sacred Community
A Learning Opportunity with Rabba Kaya

Acts of loving-kindness and compassion between individuals and their neighbors are the hallmark of Jewish communal life. Welcoming guests to our homes (hakhnasat orhim) and visiting the sick (bikkur holim) epitomize the supreme value expressed in the Torah- v'ahavta l'reiakha kamokha- You shall love your neighbor as yourself.


Beginning in session one, we shall explore texts describing the practice and spiritual implications for hospitality upon the guests and the host. In session two, we will explore the imperative and the sensitive nature of visiting the sick through study of rabbinic texts that reveal a depth of concern for the welfare and dignity of every human being. 

January 25 - 27, 2013
Isabella Freedman
Jewish Retreat Center
Falls Village, CT 

A Tu b'Shevat Celebration
at Isabella Freedman Center

Join Rabba Kaya for this weekend of celebration 
and commitment to a sustainable future.

 For more info go to:
Come for the weekend or for a day. Commuter rates are available.
About Us
We seek to enrich and support Jewish spiritual life in the Berkshire region by transmitting the richness of Jewish tradition and wisdom to the broadest audience of seekers while fostering a contemporary sensibility and awareness.


By providing educational opportunities and offering experiences in prayer, 

meditation and movement. 

By offering chaplaincy/spiritual support services to the sick, elderly and bereaved

By providing a community-wide Hevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society)


Board Members: Elie Hammerling-President, Barbara Drosnin, Myrna Hammerling, Dr. Helaine Harris, Dr. Stephen Kaufman, Susie Kaufman, Dr. Andrea Jacobson 


Rimon is an affiliate of Jewish Federation of the Berkshires 



Rimon: Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality
PO Box 502, Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230