“The Dangers of Self Delusion”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we read of the first seven plagues that the Al-mighty visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt.

The Torah reports that when the first plague of blood struck the Nile, all the fish and all life in the river died, and the Nile became foul. Despite the fact that there was blood throughout the land of Egypt and there was no water to drink, Pharaoh hardened his heart, especially after the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate the plague by turning water into blood.

The Al-mighty then instructed Moses to warn Pharaoh that if he refuses to let the Israelites leave Egypt, the entire land will be struck by a plague of frogs. And so it was. After the plague struck, the entire land of Egypt was covered with frogs. This time as well, the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate the plague and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt.

In desperation, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and begged them to remove the frogs from him and his people. Pharaoh even agreed to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt so they could send offerings to their G-d. Taking Pharaoh at his word, Moses then cried out to the Al-mighty and all the frogs quickly died, they were piled up into heaps, and the entire land of Egypt stank.

In Exodus 8:11, the Torah records Pharaoh’s reaction, וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה, וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת לִבּוֹ, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם, But when Pharaoh saw that there was a relief, he hardened his heart, and did not heed them, as G-d had predicted.

The Da’at Sofrim insightfully notes that there is a natural tendency for people who are rooted in evil to feel greater sensitivity for their bodies than they do for their minds and hearts. As long as the plague caused pain to his body, Pharaoh agreed to comply. But, as soon as the pressure ceased, Pharaoh returned to his evil ways, and looked back upon his earlier decision to cooperate as impetuous and premature.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez points out that it is quite understandable that Pharaoh hardened his heart once the plagues ended, especially if there were no lingering signs of the plagues and no negative after effects. However, in this instance, the entire land of Egypt was filled with dead frogs, resulting in a noxious stench that made life in Egypt unbearable. And yet, Pharaoh continued to harden his heart.

These patterns repeated themselves. Whenever Pharaoh actually felt the pain of the plagues, he ran to Moses and begged for him to pray to his G-d for relief. But, as soon as relief arrived, he reverted back to his own stubborn self, refusing to acknowledge that G-d will likely bring other plagues. Although Pharaoh experienced relief for only a short time, he did not seem to care.

The Midrash Rabba (Exodus 8:11) describes this behavior as the “way of the wicked.” As soon as circumstances change and things become tolerable, the wicked forget about the Al-mighty and reject accountability for their deeds, reverting back to their old, wicked ways.

Unfortunately, it is not only the wicked who behave this way. So-called, “good people” do as well. How often do good people cry out to G-d when they suffer pain or loss, or when things do not go the way they had hoped they would go? But, too frequently, even good people take their blessings for granted, forgetting to acknowledge all the good and blessing, that has been their lot.

At the Passover Seder, three important elements of the Passover experience are featured: פֶּסַח–“Pesach”, מַצָּה–“Matzah” and מָרוֹר–“Maror.” Pesach represents the Paschal sacrifice that was brought by the people of Israel in Egypt before the redemption. Matzah underscores the speed with which the salvation took place. And Maror, of course, recalls the bitter persecution and enslavement.

Perhaps the author of the Haggadah should have put Maror first, since it was the bitterness of enslavement that was experienced first. On the other hand, perhaps the author of the Haggadah was trying to remind future generations how critically important it is for people to always keep in mind the Maror, the suffering, so that they would better appreciate the liberation and the good times. Particularly, those who have been liberated and freed from challenging circumstances must acknowledge that Jewish destiny depends upon their own future actions. All must thank G-d not only for what they have received in the past, but, hopefully, for what they will yet receive in the future, due to the goodness of G-d and His compassion.

We dare not delude ourselves like Pharaoh, and think that because we experience a brief respite from pain, we will no longer be held accountable. Even good people cannot revert back to their sinful ways, without paying a price.

Consequently, it is important for all to appreciate the respites, and regard them as true gifts from G-d, without allowing themselves into being deluded into thinking that because the pain was temporarily relieved, all is good, and all will continue to be good.

All will be good — if we make certain to earn it and deserve it!

May you be blessed.