As a child, one of my favorite nursery rhymes was “Little Bunny Foo Foo.” I’ll refresh your memory, with apologies in advance for the subsequent earworm:
Little Bunny Foo Foo,
Hopping through the forest,
Scooping up the field mice,
And bopping them on the head.
Down came the Good Fairy, and she said,
“Little Bunny Foo Foo,
I don’t want to see you,
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head.”
“I’ll give you three chances,
And if you don’t behave,
I’m gonna turn you into a goon!”
This nursery rhyme, however silly it might seem, offers a lesson in patience and in setting expectations. The Good Fairy doesn’t just punish Little Bunny right away. Instead, she gives Little Bunny three chances to make a behavioral change. As one who works with learners of all ages (not to mention an avid Tigers baseball fan), the “three strikes and you’re out” rule is very familiar to me.
Our Torah portion this week may have influenced this nursery rhyme to some degree. Parshat Vaera launches the Israelites’ journey away from Egypt. We find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. And Moses isn’t so sure of himself anyway.
Throughout the text, we see the notion that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” As human beings, we value our free will above all else, so this idea doesn’t sit well with everyone. If God caused the hardened heart, why is Pharaoh held responsible? If God did this, does that mean we have no free will? If God did this, does that mean that God wanted to punish the Egyptians? And so on.
As a rabbi and person who believes fiercely in free will, I myself struggled with this text until about a year ago, when I came across another interpretation. Perhaps the reason God kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to give “good Egyptians” the opportunity to step forward and demand an end to the cruelty and oppression. In this interpretation, we see God testing the people as God has done so many times before. In this case, it’s a test to see if there are any other upstanders. Remember, just last week we read about Moses standing up against injustice when no one else would. Maybe this moment of “hardening the heart” is a test to see if there are others who might find their voice and step up and speak out against injustice. The name of our parshah, Vaera, means “and he saw.” It’s a reminder that part of our job as human beings is to see one another, to speak up against injustice, to do the work to soften hearts so that oppression against any people is uncovered and vanquished. We’ve been given enough chances; now it’s time to change.