In this week’s Torah reading, Va’era, we read about the first several of the 10 plagues suffered by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Each time, Pharaoh offers to let the Israelites leave Egypt if that particular plague will stop, but once the plague does stop and all is well, Pharaoh either “becomes stubborn” or “stiffens” his heart, and refuses to let the people go.
Things just keep getting worse for the Egyptians, and it isn’t until next week, in parashat Bo, that Pharaoh and the Egyptians finally understand God’s power and sovereignty. In a kind of “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” moment, the Israelites are sent on their way. But again, when the danger has passed, Pharaoh has to make one last effort to keep his huge labor force from leaving.
Fear can be a great motivator, but it doesn’t often promote positive motivation for change. Often the opposite; the changes that come about when one does things out of fear create resentment and resistance, keeping us from growing, changing and moving forward.
After a certain age, which is different for everyone, it’s rare that we go to the doctor and he or she doesn’t suggest lifestyle changes that might help improve our health. One of the scariest is cholesterol and heart disease; perhaps smoking and cancer isn’t far behind. No one needs to tell us what we already know–that if we lose weight, stop smoking, exercise, change our eating habits, reduce stress, etc.–that we will most likely be healthier. And we may truly want to make these changes, but they’re hard. I know how hard it is to quit smoking, and I know why my weight has fluctuated quite a bit over the years.
So speaking of hearts, this is exactly what happens when we’re confronted with the need to make life-style changes such as losing weight and exercising to help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. Our bloodwork comes back with numbers our doctor doesn’t like, so we decide it’s time to make some changes; we’re going to eat less meat and fewer sweets, we’re going to start walking, been there, done that. And our numbers do improve. And the doctor is happy.
And once the “danger” has passed, we relax. Humans are stubborn creatures, and we resist change. Like Pharaoh, we might sabotage ourselves because the change is painful. Pharaoh doesn’t want to be seen as diminished in the eyes of his subjects if he acquiesces to some silly plague like locusts or boils, which is one reason all 10 plagues were needed, and the final one hit extremely close to home. For many of us, coming to terms with a lifetime of counting calories or tracking food feels like a major punishment. Ask me how I know!
In ancient times, the heart was not just the center of emotion, it was the center of thought and intellect. We all have a little bit of Pharaoh inside ourselves, and we also have the spark of the Divine to support us. How do we keep them in balance so we can live our best lives?