from the heart of jerusalem

Vaera: more than a routine patrol


The three of us represented a cross-section of Israeli society: Kachlon, a bank teller, Rami, an electrician, and me. It has always been my custom to say Tefillat Haderech before a patrol, and this was no exception. Though Rami and Kachlon did not describe themselves as religious, both covered their heads as I intoned the traditional prayer.

We had been on patrol for about an hour when we suddenly heard a loud bang from our left.

In the movies, soldiers always manage to immediately return heavy bursts of automatic fire, but in real life that would be ridiculous. You don’t know where the shots are coming from, you are not sure they are firing at you, and you are not even sure the noise is a gunshot.

I screamed “full gas!” at Rami, who was driving, while craning my neck for the source of the gunshots. Kachlon started shouting, “They’re shooting at us! I saw the bullet!” (He would later swear he actually saw a bullet pass between us.) Thank G-d, no one was hit, and after exiting the jeep 50 yards down, we advanced towards the spot where the shot had been fired. By the time we got there, whoever had fired was long gone. I began to wonder whether we had really been fired upon. We found no shell casings or bullet holes in any of the surrounding buildings, but Kachlon insisted he had actually seen a bullet.

Only when we got back to the jeep did we find a neat little bullet hole on either sides of the jeep tarp, indicating, indeed, that a bullet had miraculously passed through the jeep six inches behind my head.

From that day on, Rami and Kachlon refused to go out on patrol with anyone but me, and they would not leave the base until I had finished reciting Tefillat Haderech, which they insisted was the miraculous source of our salvation.

So often, one wonders if we are making choices that put us in the right place at the right time. Are we spared tragedies that were 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 hit the gas at the right moment? Or does G-d orchestrate it all, with the end result a foregone conclusion? 

This question, perhaps, is one of the challenges of next week’s parsha, Vaera.

The story of the Exodus is a classic that we all grew up with. Back then it seemed so much simpler: there were the good guys and the bad guys, and when Moshe and Aharon squared off against Pharaoh and the evil empire, you never had any trouble choosing a side. Pharaoh was the villain, right? How could he refuse, in the face of plague after plague, to let the Jews go?

Except for one small detail: G-d has already told Moshe that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. So why is he held accountable for his refusal to free the Jewish people?

The Ramban points out that in the Torah, it does not say that 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).

This, suggests the Ramban, is the whole point. Everything we do is governed by the choices we make. If we had no freedom of choice, then there would be no value to anything we do. But some choices we make also remove our ability to choose.

The best example is probably addiction. The first time a person uses heroin, he is free to decide whether or not he wants to try it, whether or not to ignore the warnings he has heard. But every time he uses it, he has a little less ability to resist, until finally he is addicted and has completely removed his ability to choose.

This is the nature of evil. A person can sink so far down the path that he or she no longer has the ability to choose not to commit wrong. Such a person has made choices that have removed their ability to choose.

And this, suggests the Ramban, is what happens in the case of Pharaoh. With each successive plague, Pharaoh’s choices removed his ability to choose, until eventually he sank so low and went so far down the path of evil that he could no longer choose good.

Hence, in the first five plagues, the Torah depicts Pharaoh as hardening his own heart, but in the last five, it describes his heart as being hardened by G-d. One might suggest that G-d did not remove Pharaoh’s free choice. Pharaoh did 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.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

A version of this column appeared in 2011.