The three of us represented a standard cross-section of Israeli society: Kachlon, a bank-teller, Rami, an electrician, and me. It has always been my custom to say the special prayer for the journey (Tefillat Ha’Derech) before every patrol, and this one was no exception. Though both Rami and Kachlon did not describe themselves as religious, both instinctively covered their heads with their hands as I intoned the traditional prayer.
We had been on patrol for about an hour when we suddenly heard a loud ‘bang!’ that sounded like a gunshot, coming from our left. In the movies, the soldiers always manage to immediately return heavy bursts of automatic fire in such situations, but in real life that would have been ridiculous. You don’t know exactly where the shots are coming from, you are not yet sure they are firing at you, and you are not even sure the noise is actually a gunshot.
So, while craning my neck around to try and locate the source of the gunshots, I screamed “full gas!” at Rami (who was driving), and Kachlon started shouting:
“Yorim Aleinu’! Ra’iti Et HaKadur!” (“They’re shooting at us and I saw the bullet!”)
He would later swear he actually saw the bullet pass between us….
Thank G-d, no one was hit, and after exiting the jeep 50 yards down,we began to advance towards the spot on the road where the shot had been fired, but by the time we got there, whoever had fired was long gone, at which point I began to wonder whether we had really been fired upon. We found neither shell casings, nor any bullet holes in any of the surrounding buildings on either side of the road, but Kachlon insisted he had actually seen the bullet pass through, and only when we got back to the jeep did we find a neat little bullet hole on both sides of the jeep tarp, indicating, indeed, that a bullet had miraculously passed through the jeep no more than six inches behind my head.
From that day on, both Rami and Kachlon absolutely refused to go out on patrol with anyone else but me, and they would not leave the gates of the base until I had finished reciting the prayer for the journey (Tefillat Ha’Derech), which they insisted was the miraculous source of their salvation.
So often, one wonders, are we making choices that put us in the right place at the right time? Are we spared (or given) the tragedies that are often but a hair’s breadth away, simply by virtue of making the right decisions, or is there some master plan, ordained by G-d long ago?
Am I still here because I happened to hit the gas at the right time? Or does G-d orchestrate it all, with the end-result a foregone conclusion?
This question, perhaps, is one of the challenges of this week’s portion, Va’era.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a classic that we all grew up with. Back then, it seems, it was so much simpler: there were the good guys and the bad guys, and when Moses and Aaron squared off against Pharaoh and the evil empire of Egypt, you never had any trouble with who you were supposed to be rooting for. After all, Pharaoh was the villain everyone loves to hate, right? And how could he refuse, in the face of one plague after another to let the Jewish people go?
Except for one small detail: G-d has already told Moshe that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so the fact that Pharaoh refuses to let the Jews go free is completely irrelevant!
“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and miracles in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen to you….” (Exodus 7:3-4)
So, if Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by G-d, one wonders why he is held accountable for his refusal to free the Jewish people?
The Ramban (Rav Moshe Ben Nachman, a 12th century Spanish Commentator) points out that in the Torah it does not say G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the first five plagues. Rather, the text suggests that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. (See 7:13, 22; 8:15, 28 and 9:7)
And this, suggests the Ramban, is the whole point. Everything we do is governed by the choices we make, and if we had no freedom of choice, then there would be no value to anything we do.
However, the choices we make also remove our ability to choose.
The best example of this is probably the scenario of addiction. The first time a person uses Heroin, he is clearly making a choice, and he is free to decide whether he wants to try Heroin, and ignore whatever warnings he has heard, or not. But every time he uses Heroin, he has a little less ability to resist it, until finally he is addicted and has completely removed his ability to choose not to use it. And this, as well, is the nature of evil. A person can sink so far down the path of evil, that he or she no longer has the ability to choose not to commit evil. Such a person has made choices that have removed their ability to choose.
And this, suggests the Ramban, is exactly what happens in the case of Pharaoh. With each successive plague, Pharaoh’s choices actually remove his ability to choose, until eventually he has sunken so low and gone so far down the path of evil, that he can no longer choose good. Hence, in the first five plagues the Torah depicts Pharaoh as hardening his own heart, but in the last five plagues, the Torah describes Pharaoh’s heart as being hardened by G-d. One might suggest that G-d does not remove Pharaoh’s free choice; Pharaoh does that to himself.
Perhaps one of the many messages of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is to be careful about the choices we make, because they will even affect what choices we have the ability to make in the future….
May we blessed with the wisdom to make the right choices in our lives, for the right reasons.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,
Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org