The Mills of God

Where I live, inflation is in double figures and is going to rise higher. People are doing all they can for Ukrainian refugees and Russian and Ukrainian can be frequently heard in the streets. Food and fuel prices are rising here and in a poor country this is not merely an inconvenience. It is a calamity and the reasons can be laid squarely at Moscow’s door. Yet the chill wind of famine is currently felt most keenly in the vast agricultural territories of Ukraine itself. A few weeks ago, a journalist spoke with a Ukrainian peasant – they still call the agricultural workers that in a place that is virtually a breadbasket for the rest of the world. He said: “In the old days, we had horses and cows and pigs and chickens. Now we are dying of hunger. In the old days, we fed the world. Now they have taken all we had away from us and we have nothing. In the old days, I would have bade you welcome, and given you as my guest chickens and eggs and milk and fine, white bread. Now we have no bread in the house.”

Soldiers have once more been sent by Moscow to seize Ukrainian grain. Once more, farmers are killed and their barns and stores looted. And once more, the Ukrainian people are being made to pay.

 Ukraine is a country geographically cursed by sheer bad luck. It sits cheek by jowl with Russia, which brought it the USSR, Josef Stalin, the gulags and an unsuccessful Cold War. Now, a new and perhaps even more devilish incarnation of the Russian bear is at its gates.

Less well known is that Ukraine is a victim of its own fecundity. The country is coated in so-called “black soil” (Chernozem), which contains humus of such good quality that make it the most fertile soil in the world. In it grows barley, wheat, corn, soy, rape seed and sunflowers. Only about 2% of the world’s soil is black soil and about 25% of that is found in Ukraine. The country has over 42 million hectares of agricultural land of which roughly 32 million is cultivated every year — equivalent to roughly one-third of the arable land in the entire European Union.

Since the Russians invaded on 24 February, they have destroyed civilian districts with indiscriminate, old-fashioned weaponry, trashed public infrastructure, slaughtered women and children and tortured and executed prisoners. They have also stolen farm equipment, shelled food storage sites and stolen thousands of tonnes of grain. It’s systemic and most obvious in the country’s south where farmers have reported multiple, egregious thefts. Furthermore, Ukraine cannot export the grain it has. Millions of tonnes are stuck and a vast stockpile is simply rotting where it lies. The Russians have taken Mariupol and, with it, Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea so many of the usual channels have been deliberately and shamefully blocked. Now they are creeping with bullish indifference to both their own and their enemies’ losses towards Mykolaiv in order to seize Odessa. Since Ukraine cannot get its grain out, this creates a domino effect, rippling around the world. Trusted sources speak of an “apocalyptic rise” in food prices in big importers like the UK. But we will not suffer alone. Around 40% of Egyptian milling grain – the grain that is used for bread – comes from Ukraine. If this fails to materialise there will be almost certainly be widespread hunger if not a near-famine. The effect on the country, as well as on the region’s political stability, will almost certainly be catastrophic. Many African nations, their economies hanging by a thread, may suffer the same fate.

The Russian army still fights like the Red Army did during the Second World War. Its slab-faced tactics remain equally stupid, its brutality and stolid, Napoleonic indifference similarly unchecked. It murders Ukrainian children. It destroys Ukrainian artefacts. It tries to erase all traces of the country’s national identity. No surprise, then, that it has merely succeeded in galvanising it.

It is not just the Ukrainians who are enraged. Much of the rest of the world wants to see the army responsible and most particularly its commander in chief receive a bloody nose of such ferocity that they will think twice before trying their luck elsewhere. Dictators have a habit of not bowing out gracefully. They have to be removed by force. This one will eventually join the Idi Amins, the Ceaucescus and the Saddam Husseins, the Qaddafis and all the others. But the cost may be punishingly high.

We hope indeed that as this terrible conflict drags on, Longfellow’s grim poetry of retribution will come true: 

“Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all. The mills of God grind slowly but they grind exceeding small.”

A Shortage of Genius

Roe v Wade. The flagship of pro-abortion legislation. Women have the right to choose. The murder of the foetuses. Rape, incest and conception; how brittle and fractured the argument has become. A leaked report from the US Supreme Court suggests that Roe v Wade may be wrested from federal hands and returned to local legislation. This does seem to make sense insofar as opinions in rural Texas are unlikely to have much resonance with the sophisticates in New York City.

Everyone seems to have a dog in this fight, atheists like Richard Dawkins use weighty philosophical argument to support a view largely for the pros and the Beethoven argument, plus a welter of religious opinion is used to bolster the cons. This discourse is interesting. One of the most provocative arguments against abortion is that Beethoven might never have existed if abortion had been available in his mother’s day. The British playwright Enid Bagnold, great-grandmother of Samantha Cameron, wife of the former Prime Minister, once asked a feminist what advice she would give to a twenty-three-year-old housewife who, having lost four children, found herself pregnant again by an abusive, alcoholic husband.

“I would urge her to terminate the pregnancy,” the feminist replied.

“Then,” said Ms. Bagnold, “you would have aborted Beethoven.”

The economic and physical health of the Beethoven family and of Ludwig himself were of the kind that in today’s world would trigger large scale intervention by social services professionals. The relative ease with which termination can be obtained in adverse circumstances is commonly used to justify it. The possibility is sad to contemplate. How much drearier the world would be without Ode to Joy.

And yet, what of all the artists, poets, scientists and statesmen who do not exist because of the relative ease of abortion? We may have failed to bring into existence another Raphael, Newton, Leibniz or Goethe or Marie Curie, consigning ourselves to living in a world bereft and ignorant of their possible contribution. How sad it is and how wantonly we squander them. It’s good to have the anti-abortionists reminding us of how cavalierly we ignore the shortage of genius.

Having said that, there’s a downside. Had Maria Schicklgruber had access to a termination, we would have been spared the birth out of wedlock of her son Adolf who systematically presided over the deaths of millions.

Angry Hippos

How convoluted have all our new woke fetishes become when a really clever lady declines to say what a woman is, for fear she will “offend” some two-day-old cause? The question has all the difficulty of — if the stove top is turned on, is it hot? Most of us figure out that “heat plus meat equals barbecue” and behave accordingly. But we’re all wallowing like angry hippos in the miasma, or perhaps, quicksand of identity politics and ever proliferating genders. Dear me, I can only name two biological ones and a third based on phenotype, but, hey – I’m seventy and didn’t come upriver on a banana boat so what do I know? I’ve now been told that self-declaration is the determinant of sexuality – gosh, how strange is that? I think I’d like to self-determine a bit. I’d like to be a cat for a week or so and be endlessly pampered, fed pieces of chicken and get to nod off frequently on the sofa. It seems on our decadent, supposedly enlightened times it is far better not to say what we know and feel is a diamond backed truth, instead slither away into protective silence or cowardly evasion.

On February 25, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that he would nominate Ketanji Brown Jackson to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Here’s a secret. I’d put money on the fact that the first Black female candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court actually believes she is a woman. She claims not to be a biologist, thus unqualified to comment on gender issues. Don’t spread it around, please. It might hurt her chances, and Heaven forfend, would certainly swirl the waters, especially in swimming pools where people who for nearly all their lives presented as male are hoovering up medals in events where women compete.

Which of these two then is more daft? Play-acting with rubber ducks in competitive swimming pools, or the example of a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court who pretends she can’t answer a question as old as the hills and that every woman since Eve has had no trouble with.

I think it’s a toss-up, really.

Though becoming so sophisticated that we hesitate in saying whether someone is a man or a woman for lack of expertise on the subject probably has the edge. 

Half the world has seen the drama played out at the Oscars. In case you belong to the other half, the presenter, supposedly a comedian, made a tasteless and unnecessary joke about Will Smith’s wife, Jade Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia. ‘GI Jane 2’ drew a thin rictus of a smile from Mr Smith, while Mrs looked visibly upset. Will then rose from his seat and basically bitch-slapped the comedian, returned to his place and said, loudly, twice ‘keep my wife’s name out of your f***king mouth.’ Twitter polarised instantly and it’s hard not to have an opinion.

So, here’s mine. Unjustifiable violence is not to be condoned, but a man standing up for his wife is to be applauded. It’s what men are supposed to do and had it been allowed to pass unchallenged, Will would have been pilloried as a spineless little weasel not man enough to defend his wife. Would words have been enough? Possibly. Although the comedian on the receiving end of Mr Smith’s right palm will now think twice before making tasteless jokes in public about another man’s wife. I was reminded of a video I saw recently about angry hippos who fight sometimes to the death to acquire a mate. Worth a look.

Forlorn Hope

This powerful image stayed with me as both a metaphor and a proudly defiant gesture. A cellist plays Bach in the ruins of Kharkiv, his home town.

World War One was a period of extensive hanging about, punctuated by periods of intense, incontinent violence. It remains to be seen whether the mud and the blood in Ukraine will follow the same ghastly playbook, featuring a multiplicity of charred buildings and dead bodies littering the streets of its major cities. Phalanxes of soldiers, marching in step, grim tanks pointing their guns at the innocents – is this really 2022? Or have we simply stepped back, nothing learned, into a hundred year old theatre with bayonets and mustard gas? It seems that the Kremlin has no strategy other than scorched earth, extreme violence and destruction. Like most dictatorial regimes, their grip on reality slackens as the whirlwind they themselves have unleashed plays out so very differently to expectation and Putin is no different in this regard to Hitler, Pol Pot or a handful of others whose gold-plated overreach has lost touch with reality. Putin is in a psychotic black hole, mired by unexpectedly spirited resistance bordering on outright defeat, buttressed ineffectually by incompetence, toadyism and it would appear, a total lack of empathy with the educated peoples he is supposed to govern. He seems oblivious to the stark fact that his troops are being chewed up in the mud, his generals assassinated and half of his army just want to go back to their mothers. Stalemate is a real possibility, the Ukrainians will fight to the last bullet, but at a cost of tens of thousands of lives, mostly wasted in efforts which have no chance of bearing the fruits of peace. Putin’s latest efforts in Istanbul suggest that he has learned nothing. Ukrainians must demilitarise. No. They must speak Russian. No. They must forswear all aspirations to join NATO. Possibly.

Why should we in the relative security of the West, buttressed by democracy which works most of the time, care? Because all the things which we have negotiated, protested about and held our governments to account for is under threat. Basic human decency has been replaced by barbarian slaughter which is wasteful, mindless and punishingly expensive both in material and emotional cost. A humanitarian corridor becomes a killing field – it is not just the language that is perverted. The white dove of peace has been remorselessly hunted down and shredded to blood and bone by the hawks and falcons for their own pernicious and largely valueless ends, leaving vultures to pick over the bones.

The East is lost. The wreckage of Mariupol has become a deportation hub, thousands forcibly removed to ‘camps’ in Russia – exactly as happened in Chechnya. Human rights? Moscow doesn’t care. Will the West do more to put a stop to it? Probably not. Moscow has billions in gold reserves and enough places to trade where Western sanctions won’t work. 

The best everyone can hope for is that Ukraine cedes the Eastern territories in exchange for ceasefire and ultimate armistice, relinquishes any ambition to join NATO and looks west for culture, democracy and freedom. A fat impregnable DMZ, manned by peacekeepers, will keep the snarling Russian wolfhounds at bay and a huge humanitarian effort to rebuild shattered communities will perhaps convince a few of them to look hard at how they are governed. A forlorn hope? Possibly, but a hope, nevertheless.

I am asking myself why I am writing this since millions of words have already been written, most in outrage at the behaviour of a new Hitler who made things so much worse by invoking Divine right and ridiculous, absurd claims of Nazi control. The scream of bombs, the whimpers of the dying, the savage destruction, the total breakdown of all that we cherish as civilisation has never touched me. I walk freely in the streets, without fear. My government, for the most part, tells me the truth. I am one of the lucky ones.

Perceiving Beauty

In the midst of the most significant conflict Europe has seen since WW2, it’s sometimes difficult to find something else to talk about. News hounds obsess over every detail, real or imagined that is happening in a country determined to defend itself against its obliteration by a megalomaniac the like of whom has not been seen in the West since Adolf Hitler. In times when the news is dark and political prognosis dire, sometimes a ray of light shines in the darkness, even if the darkness did not understand it.

This was too good to pass up, reported at length at the time and was adapted from an article in the Washington Post.

It was a cold morning, in January 2007.

He emerged from the Metro at L’Enfant Plaza station just before ten to eight. Rush hour was in full swing as he positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. He was pretty nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swivelled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

He played six Bach pieces, known for their phenomenal difficulty, for nearly forty five minutes. During that time, over a thousand people passed him by through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about four minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he quickly moved on.

At six minutes, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and walked away. After eight minutes, the violinist received his first dollar. A woman tossed some money in the case and, without stopping, continued to walk.

A few minutes later, a three-year old boy stopped, but his mother quickly pulled him away by his hand. The child stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother hurried him past and the child continued to walk, turning his head. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – moved their children on quickly.

At forty-three minutes, he concluded his performance. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but rarely stopped to listen. The man collected a total of $32.

After he stopped playing, there was silence except for the normal Metro bustle. No one noticed and no one applauded.

The impromptu concert was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

It raised several questions:

No one knew, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. His Sibelius performance in Oslo (link on his name) was considered to be a once-in-a lifetime interpretation. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a Stradivarius violin worth three and a half million dollars. Tickets for his concerts were hard to get and very expensive.

In a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

Do we recognise talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we cannot find a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, what else are we missing?

Full Tonto

Prague, 1968 (NY Times).

“Was Hamlet mad?” was a favourite O level Eng Lit question, back in the days when children actually did something useful in English lessons. We might ask the same question in the present tense of the new Tsar in the Kremlin, hunkered down behind layer on layer of fawning acolytes who are only too aware of the possible penalties if they dare to challenge the opinion of the Supreme Leader. Forget about the sugarcoating, he seeks to be a new Ivan the Terrible – a Tsar of all the Russias and he wants to welcome back all the black sheep who so shamelessly deserted the fold after glasnost and perestroika. Vladimir Putin’s televised speech from the Kremlin a week ago was unequivocal, no more mincing words.

Listening to the speech, a Ukrainian journalist commented, just before the senseless and unnecessary invasion of the Ukraine: “He’s gone f****** mad …..it may well be that after years of acting like a Tsar, he really has… like so many before him, and something crazy is coming.” He was, sadly, proved right and Putin went full tonto. All his protestations of no invasion, of deliverance from ‘drug addicts and Fascists’ simply underlined the fear that many now have, that a maniac is in charge of the red button, a new Dr Strangelove but without the comedy. Putin basically said what he had been thinking for the last twenty years. Beyond the content, which predictably harked back to days of glory when the Soviets placed their iron boots on every and all dissent, was the tone. It was nothing less than a toxic mix of self-pity and superiority.

This will always lead to violence.

“You didn’t want to be friends,” the playground bully told us. “But you didn’t have to make an enemy of us.” Sadly, Vlad, when tanks and troops and missiles show up on the doorstep, there will be blood and some of it – in fact rather a lot of it – will be spilled. And you are directly responsible to the mothers of Russia whose conscript sons were needlessly slaughtered and to the population of a free and sovereign state whose only crime was a desire to join NATO. 

As always, the bully sees himself as the victim. No, Vlad, we want Russia to prosper and feel safe, taking her place in a modern world which isn’t governed by despots, kleptocrats and tyrants like you. Remember the Ceaucescus? They faced charges of gathering illegal wealth and genocide. Sounds familiar? And we all recall what happened to them. I hope you’re looking over your shoulder because you could be next if the sanctions imposed by right-thinking democracies have any say in the matter and the Russian people decide to take matters into their own hands. Alternatively, five minutes alone in a room with the mayor of Kyiv… Let’s see how far your Black belt in judo takes you. The Yiddish word ‘paskudnyak’ describes you perfectly – a person of such loathsomeness it defies description.

Perhaps most disturbingly, it has now become clear that this is no longer just about the Ukraine (if indeed it ever was). Every former Soviet state is, by implication, now in the firing line.

Prayers are rising from every corner of Christendom that this madness will cease. May it be so.

Trees

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara Hasui Kawase 1931 (woodblock)

Most people know that I classify myself as a ‘believer’. I don’t bang on about it, or create an arsenal of Scriptural references, discharged like a blunderbuss into the world as some kind of proof of piety, or feel the need to remain in a constant state of apologetics. I suppose to some extent it’s the English thing to do – keep such opinions to yourself. And yet, I am often asked. A city, we read, set on a hill cannot be hidden. It exists and is visible thus whatever means I might use in order to deflect ridicule and accusations of medievalism are fundamentally flawed. If we actually have the temerity to consider ourselves children of God, we carry with us some spiritual genetics which is bound to show, almost phenotypically as we wander through the world and, for the most part, tends to make us better and nobler individuals, despite many and frequent falls into the ditch as we traverse the highways of our lives. 

People tend to be judgmental here – if things don’t go according to the plans they have made, it’s someone else’s fault. Opinion quickly hardens into principle then into dogma which people feel compelled to defend. In consequence, churches split over minor doctrinal issues, attitudes harden as a result of preconceptions and people who have been friends for years drift, like untethered boats, apart.

I was thinking about this in the context of constancy and predictability and a most fertile metaphor for humanity came to mind, a tree. As metaphor, it could hardly be older, the first Man and his companion were instructed not to eat fruit from a particular Tree. They did and destruction has crouched at mankind’s door ever since.

Cyclic and predictable, the fractal beauty of a winter tree gives way to seasonal growth and hope as a metaphor becomes a living, visceral, existential reality – a magnetic pull towards the sublime. Nature’s memory is encoded in the life of a tree, as we observe it, it almost seems to change in a strange quantum mechanical sense – the act of observation changes the outcome. As we get to know our paths and choices with greater certainty and clarity, we find ourselves in a more secure place, planted by the waterside and free to bloom in season.

In life-changing times, the metaphor sharpens and clarifies, had we the wit to see it. D H Lawrence, barely having survived the Spanish flu wrote in his semi-autobiographical novel “Aaron’s Rod” about the psychic calculus of history contained in a forest. He wrote:

‘(Aaron) sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had (the)… trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now….But the cypresses commemorate...

Patchwork

I had the great pleasure the other day of a weekend in the mountains, meeting up with someone whom I first knew as a baby, then as a toddler with his new rubber boots who wanted to play at jumping in the mud. I was terrified his mother might think that I had given him the idea. I knew him as a lanky teenager, obsessed with basketball and watched his progress through university from a distance since by that time we had almost lost contact. Shards of memory, twinkling like icicles in the sunlight triggered avalanches of other small, insignificant events that together made a patchwork upon which I was able to look with both affection and pride. It is the smallness of things that so often retain significance. Huge, wallowing life-changing events are like a roller-coaster. As we remember the ride, we often find we’re a little bit nauseous, but the tiny slivers of the little things, like shoals of herring, knit together a past that we want to remember rather than dismiss with shame or regret.

As is so often the case, the meeting threw up a surprise. Not just the fact that the boy had grown into a pretty impressive man, almost two metres’ worth; he towered over me like a policeman – he introduced me to his best friend who turned out to be a witty, utterly beguiling and absolutely splendid young lady. Now, there is another thread to weave into the tapestry and upon which to build memory.

Perhaps it’s a function of just getting older and the old – not me, obviously – tend to reminisce more than they used to do. And yet – I don’t feel old, in the sense of advancing decrepitude or inaction, instead enlivened by interaction with a generation who grew up in a world so very different from my own, shaped by a unique suite of cultural pressures into becoming people whose thinking is so very ‘other’ and as such is sometimes both strange and disturbing. As the West creeps ever closer to what we once used to describe as an Orwellian phantasmagoria of ideas which distort older and more predictable realities, it’s perhaps surprising that we found as much common ground as we did. And yet, the bedrock of times past, well-spent, engaged us in conversation for hours. It was great to see you, GW and SW. Until next time…

Milestones

Hiking milestone, Ireland.

Along with millions of others, from tea-pickers to toastmasters, today happens to be my birthday. Milestones are oddly shaped objects, they, Janus-like, point in two directions simultaneously and there’s a tendency, perhaps, as one gets older to look with rather fuzzy and ill-remembered nostalgia on the events of this day from times past and a certain creeping unease as sciatica bites and a rather less effervescent future seems more likely than not.

May we live in interesting times, as the Chinese remind us. All times are in one sense ‘interesting’, insofar as we’ve never experienced them before and as such, there’s always an element of surprise. Who would have predicted a world-wide epidemic; the ubiquitous mask causing everyone to look like surgical registrars, the implosion of the House of Windsor, anti-vaxxers on the streets of cities everywhere – even the finest tennis player in the world is being flung out of Australia today – and over a hundred thousand Russian troops facing westward towards the Ukraine. Not forgetting that we appear now to have a Punch and Judy government in the UK which will probably cause some to either die laughing or from the apoplexy of outrage. Nature reminded us that she is still capable of a few nasty surprises – a fierce ice storm threatens to engulf the entire East coast of the United States and a spectacular underwater volcanic explosion in the Pacific threw up a dust cloud twenty kilometres high and created a tsunami big enough to be felt in Alaska. Tongan homes were inundated.

And yet the world turns, imperturbably. I shall, therefore, relax in my calm, serene apartment and on a beautiful day, go out for lunch.

Greatness

I have long admired Rabbi Sacks. Reading him is like a window into the past. So, why a picture like this?

The recent death of Desmond Tutu caused a few reflections to surface. My father once remarked on attending a colleague’s funeral described as a ‘great man’ was that he was not ‘great’ at all. Greatness is a strange ascription. Cyrus – the Great? Alexander – the Great?  Gregory the Great, Desmond – the Great? Pharaoh Rameses? Many years ago, I knew people who lived and worked with the famous archbishop. Dr Tutu gave the world the idea of ‘Israeli apartheid’ a deep antisemitic calumny for which he will be judged and much has already been written and about which there is little left to say, except this. Men are capable of remarkably good works, exceptional heroism and scholarship, also a delusional capability to ascribe one form of torture to another. Conflating the consequences of a system originally set up for people to stop killing each other with another providing a pathway to freedom is a lie.

I have been reading Aquinas in recent times – his metaphysics is fascinating and has relevance, as follows…

The question is ancient. How does God present himself in different ways and at different times to people? We, in our day, with electric cars and smartphones, AI and advanced mathematics – how can we possibly be compared to a Pharaoh, believing himself to be a god. Then we go back to Torah and the absolute precision of the Hebrew Scriptures. This, as they say, is strong meat.

If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then it was God who made Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go, not Pharaoh himself. How can this be just? How could it be right to punish Pharaoh and his people for a decision – a series of decisions – that were not made freely? Punishment presupposes guilt. Guilt presupposes responsibility. Responsibility presupposes freedom. We do not blame weights for falling, or the sun for shining. Natural forces are not choices made by reflecting on alternatives. Homo sapiens alone is free. Take away that freedom and you take away our humanity. How then can it say (Ex. 7:3) that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? 

All the commentators are exercised by this question. Maimonides and others note a striking feature of the narrative: For the first five plagues we read that Pharaoh himself hardened his heart. Only later, during the last five plagues, do we read about God doing so. The conclusion they draw therefore is that the last five plagues were therefore a punishment for the first five refusals, freely made by Pharaoh himself. 

A second approach, in precisely the opposite direction, is that during the last five plagues God intervened not to harden but to strengthen Pharaoh’s heart. He acted to ensure that Pharaoh kept his freedom and did not lose his resolve. Such was the impact of the plagues that in the normal course of events a national leader would have no choice but to give in to a superior force. As Pharaoh’s own advisers said before the eighth plague, “Do you not yet realise that Egypt is destroyed?” (Ex. 10:7) To give in at that point would have been action under duress, not a genuine change of heart.

A third approach calls into question the very meaning of the phrase, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

In a profound sense God, Author of history, is behind every event, every act, every gust of wind that blows, every drop of rain that falls. Normally however we do not attribute human action to God. We are what we are because that is how we have chosen to be, even if this was written long before in the Divine script for humankind. What do we attribute to an act of God? Something that is unusual, falling so far outside the norms of human behaviour that we find it hard to explain in any way other than to say, surely this happened for a purpose.

This is crucial. 

God Himself says about Pharaoh’s obstinacy that it allowed Him to demonstrate to all humanity that even the greatest empire is powerless against the hand of Heaven (Ex. 7:5; 14:18). Pharaoh acted freely, but his last refusals were so strange that it was obvious to everyone that God had anticipated this. It was predictable, part of the script. God had actually disclosed this to Abraham centuries earlier when He told him in a fearful vision that his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs (Gen. 15:13-14). 

I am a stranger in a land not my own. Sometimes, I wonder, in the strange lens of history, what led me here.

These are all interesting and plausible interpretations. It seems to me, though, that the Torah is telling a deeper story, one that never loses its relevance. Philosophers and scientists have tended to think in terms of abstractions and universals. Some have concluded that we have free will, others that we don’t. There is no conceptual space in between. 

In life, however, that is not the way freedom works at all. Consider addiction – and for those who know me, I do so frequently: The first few times someone gambles or drinks alcohol or takes drugs, they may do so freely, knowing the risks but ignoring them. Time goes on and their dependency increases until the craving is so intense that they are almost powerless to resist it. At a certain point they may have to go into rehabilitation. They no longer have the ability to stop without external support. As the Talmud says, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.” (Brachot 5b) 

Addiction is a physical phenomenon, but there are moral equivalents. For example, suppose on one significant occasion you tell a lie. People now believe something about you that is not true. As they question you about it, or it comes up in conversation, you find yourself having to tell more lies to support the first. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” Sir Walter Scott famously said, “when first we practise to deceive.” One of my father’s favourite sayings.

“We lose our freedom gradually, often without noticing it.”