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Vaeira: Freedom to Choose in the Absence of Alternatives

One of the greatest strengths and fallacies of the human condition is our tendency to desire predictability and repetition. While these can be important assets and ingredients in success, we may inadvertently create obstacles for ourselves by boxing ourselves in to the same situations, yielding the same outcomes, in the service of being “consistent.”

Identifying patterns in human behavior is the cornerstone of psychological awareness. Yet it is insufficient to simply notice these patterns, throw up our hands, and surrender to the determinism of only ever being one version of who we think are, seeing only one version of events. One might say, “Of course I’m not going to talk to this person about how they hurt me; I always avoid confrontation – I am non-confrontational!” or “I’m just not a people person, of course I won’t go to that party or do well on that interview.” While it is true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, all too often we foreclose on opportunities to grow or change because we incorrectly believe we do not have the capacity to make different choices than we have before.

Despite thinking that certain behaviors, feelings, or relationship patterns are inevitable, we do in fact have the ability to make new and different choices at every given moment. As we’ve discussed previously, this idea is known in DBT as freedom to choose in the absence of alternatives. Even when we tend to think, feel, and act in specific ways due to our personality makeup or values, even when it seems as though we have no other options but to proceed in an ineffective or harmful way, we do, in fact, have options: we still have the freedom to choose to respond differently, or in a healthier way. One of the trickiest aspects of this idea is that once we have found ourselves entrenched in a pattern of behavior, we tend to develop an attention bias, whereby we begin to view events in our lives and interactions with others through a specific, narrow lens, restricted by what we expect to happen in the context of our beliefs about ourselves and our seemingly limited choices. As such, we continue to see matters in a way that supports our existing beliefs, perpetuating this ineffective cycle and creating what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recognizing the freedom to choose in the absence of alternatives can be truly liberating, and it relates directly to one of the most enigmatic details of the Exodus story depicted throughout this week’s parsha. When Moshe and Aharon return to Pharaoh’s palace and request that he let Bnei Yisrael take a three-day sojourn in the desert and he refuses, Hashem tells them to demonstrate their Divine support and power by turning Aharon’s staff into a snake (7:10-11). When Pharaoh’s magicians can replicate this same “trick,” despite the fact that Aharon’s staff swallows their staffs in its non-snake form, the pasuk says “VaYechezak Lev Pharaoh,” Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened, “vilo shama aleihem,” and he did not listen to Moshe and Aharon (10:12-13).

The Ibn Ezra explains that in this first instance, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, because he saw that his sorcerers could do exactly what Aharon did, diffusing his fear of Aharon’s God-given power. Hashem explains to Moshe and Aharon, “Kaved Lev Pharaoh,” Pharaoh’s heart is hard, or heavy, meaning that he is demonstrating a stubborn refusal to be moved by Aharon’s demonstration (7:14). The Sforno notes that this is despite the fact that Pharaoh did recognize that there was indeed a difference between his sorcerers’ power and Aharon’s. Yet after this, Pharaoh continues to harden his heart. When the first plague hits and all the water in Egypt turns to blood, Pharaoh’s magicians again replicate this miracle and turn water to blood, and Pharaoh hardens his heart, refusing to see the Hand of God in something that his Chartumim could somewhat imitate (7:22). This continues during the next plague, Tzefardeah, once the frogs died (8:11), and even more disturbingly, at the height of the plague of lice, when the magicians insist, “Etzbah Elokim Hi,” this is the finger of God, but Pharaoh refuses to capitulate (8:15).

In fact, Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and stubbornly ignore God’s intervention in his affairs through the first five plagues, and after that point, Hashem hardens his heart for him, as he promises to Moshe and Aharon earlier in the parsha, “Va’Ani Aksheh es Lev Pharaoh,” and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart (7:3). The Ramban notes that one might ask how it is possible for Pharaoh to be punished if Hashem was, in fact, taking away his Bechira, his free will, by hardening his heart. He offers two answers. First, that due to his cruel treatment of Bnei Yisrael Pharaoh was punished by losing his ability to do Teshuva. Second, that Pharaoh only began to change his mind during the second set of five plagues because of the intensity of the plagues themselves, not because he was bending to God’s will. As a result, Hashem strengthened his resolve and increased his stubbornness so that His glory would be further magnified through the rest of the plagues.

Rav Immanuel Bernstein provides a fascinating alternative explanation from the sefer Maaseh Hashem by R’ Eliezer Ashkenazi who notes that if you study the storyline, it is clear that Pharaoh’s core fear was that Hashem was actually greater and more powerful than Pharaoh and his Egyptian nation. So long as Pharaoh held on to the belief that he was god-like and indestructible, he had to also find evidence to disprove God’s power and omnipotence. As such, at every moment that he could choose to see Yad Hashem, he refused, hardening his heart and digging in his heels, clinging to his distorted sense of invincibility. This series of choices snowballed, trapping Pharaoh into this way of thinking, and he continued to harden his heart. Thereafter, Hashem merely orchestrated events in a manner that would provide Pharaoh with the opportunity to see things his way, or to change his viewpoint; Hashem did not completely deprive Pharaoh of his Bechira, but rather challenged him by creating the possibility for Pharaoh to continue in his pattern of denial and willful ignorance, or not. While it may have seemed to Pharaoh as though he had no choice but to continue to engage in his not-so-silent war against Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His emissaries, Pharaoh did indeed have a choice – and he made the wrong one, and for this he was punished.

It is interesting and unsurprising to recall that Pharaoh was a big fan of astrology, which Wikipedia[1] calls “a pseudoscience that claims to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events by studying the movements and relative positions of celestial objects.” Pharaoh wanted certainty, some concrete belief to guide him, a path that could not be altered and down which he could set without having to change course. The trouble with this mindset is that while this kind of certainty might sound freeing, it may actually be quite devastating, for it leaves us no room to choose a different ending. In fact, this was an Achilles’ heel for Pharaoh himself, as his determination to outwit the astrological signs that predicted his downfall by water did nothing to prevent his entire nation from drowning in the Yam Suf – one could argue that his decrees against the Jewish baby boys actually set off the chain of events that would land the Egyptians at the bottom of the sea. As we’ve discussed in relation to understanding one’s personality type and in other contexts, some knowledge can be liberating or damming, depending on how we use it.

There is an amazing poem by Portia Nelson that highlights this idea exactly:

I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost... I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. But, it isn't my fault. It still takes me a long time to get out. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. It's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it. I walk down another street.”

This week, let us consider the ways in which our deterministic manner of viewing our actions and ourselves may be limiting us in some way, or perhaps how our predictions of behavior, whether in others, or ourselves may be an obstacle rather than an oracle. Let’s soften our hearts and widen our lens and recognize that even when it feels like we are caught between a rock and a hard place, stuck at a dead end in the maze of life, we do have choices. Sometimes all it takes is turning our minds slightly to find an opening, a new option, a new way of reacting or feeling or thinking, a new path to take and a new road to travel. Even if we’ve always made the same choices before, even if it feels outside the realm of what’s been possible for us until now, even if we’ve walked down this street a dozen times, we always have the freedom to choose.

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