Parasha Vaera

Turning Points   When it comes to forgiveness from G-d, is there a point of no return? We are taught repeatedly in Judaism that G-d wants our repentance.  We read that the gates of forgiveness by G-d are always open.  That even if a person repents the day before their death, that repentance is accepted. This idea is comforting to some, but makes others angry.  What about Hitler? If Hitler repented, if Hitler asked forgiveness from G-d, would G-d have accepted his repentance?  Would G-d accept Osama Bin Laden’s repentance, had he repented while still alive?  What about the perpetrator of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School?  Can we forgive him?  Should G-d?  One answer to this question is contained in our Parasha for this week.  It is in the account of the ten plagues.  After each of the first five plagues, the Torah states that Pharaoh “hardened his heart and Pharaoh would not let the people go.”  From that time on, after each plague the Torah states, “G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would not let the people go.”  The objection is then raised – if G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how can it be fair that G-d punished him?  If G-d, as it were, deprived Pharaoh of his free will to make decisions, is it just that Pharaoh be punished?  By the last five plagues, it seems that G-d was not allowing Pharaoh to change his mind, to soften his stubbornness, to return to G-d in full repentance for what he had done.  What’s going on? Maimonides, in his “Laws of Teshuvah” gives us his answer. He says that is it possible that a person sins so greatly and so often that G-d decides to lock the gates of repentance to that person.  In this way, the person is punished and is must suffer from the consequences of the wickedness that he has done here on earth.  G-d gave Pharaoh five opportunities to repent, and each time Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  Those five chances would be the only ones Pharaoh gets.  After that, G-d makes it impossible for him to change, and Pharaoh’s free will is actually taken from him.  The midrash states, “Because the Holy Blessed One saw that Pharaoh did not repent after each of the first five plagues, G-d decreed, ‘From now on even if he wants to repent I am hardening his heart, in order that he may be punished for every injustice he has committed.'”  For Pharaoh there is no forgiveness, no mercy. He has forfeited the right to turn back from his evil ways.  Entire societies can also forfeit their ability to turn back and repent.  When the prophet Isaiah is commissioned by G-d in the middle of the 8th century BCE to speak to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, he is given a curious task: Dull that people’s mind/ stop its ears/ and seal its eyes Lest seeing with its eyes/ and hearing with its ears/ It also grasps with its mind/and repent and heal itself. In other words, Isaiah is supposed to fail. He is not to help the people understand the danger to which their behavior is leading them!  G-d does not desire their repentance – at least not now. The Book of Chronicles explains this. G-d tried to get the Jewish people to change their ways. “G-d had sent word to them through his messengers daily without fail, for He had pity on His people……But they mocked the messengers of G-d and disdained His words and taunted the prophets until the anger of G-d grew beyond remedy.”  (Chronicles 36:15-16) I know what you are asking: Why would G-d want to send a prophet to the people only to hope that the prophet would not succeed?  Why does Moses go to Pharaoh with the last five plagues when it is already pre-determined that Pharaoh is beyond listening to him?  Maimonides says that this is to teach us that there is a point of no return.  There is a point when we must suffer the full consequences of our behavior, with no mercy from an otherwise merciful G-d. That contrary to what we may believe, G-d’s patience is not infinite — we do not have all the time in the world to mend our ways. I was thinking about this when it comes to some of our societal issues.  Apparently it is widely felt that Sandy Hook represented a “turning point” in our nation’s response to gun violence.  Did it represent, instead, a point of no return?  Have things gotten so out of hand in our society, have we failed to address this problem for so many years, after so many warnings, that we have forfeited the ability to turn back as a society. That we cannot change, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak. I hope not – time will tell. The same is true of so many issues –wars, torture, poverty, pollution, state and national debt, to name a few – that are the plagues of our time.  How long can we go on ignoring them before there is no turning back?  I think the Torah is telling us – don’t think that G-d will save us from our own folly. Heed the warnings before it is too late.  Where are the prophets of today? Perhaps they are among the scientists, the economists, the teachers, the writers and the thinkers whose words and warnings we choose to ignore. We learn from this week’s parasha the sobering message that it can be too late to change — That there is a point of no return.  Who knows when that point may be?  The opportunity for change should never be taken for granted.  Who knows the exact moment when we will not be able to turn back, when the die is cast and the door is closed forever.   Shabbbat Shalom