“A fanatic,” Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Apocryphal or not, it’s a terrific description of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh plays only one note and never deviates. As a character in the story, he doesn’t come across as a real person. He’s a stereotype, a foil for God’s invincible power. Of course, there’s a lovely irony here: to the Egyptians, Pharaoh is not a human being; he’s a god.
Is it possible that a person never changes? Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert would say no. He and his colleagues explain in a study recently published in Science: "The End of History Illusion." We’re changing all the time. Our personalities and values do not remain static. Yet we believe that who we are today is who we will be a year from now, five years down the road, a decade hence. Looking back, we can recognize change in ourselves, but looking forward we cannot envision it. Yet growth and change — throughout our lives — are the norm, not the exception.
So what’s with Pharaoh? Parshat Va’eira offers us a bird’s eye view of Pharaoh. Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Pharaoh “stiffened his heart” and even that God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart. It’s not that Pharaoh was hesitant to change his mind; he was adamantly opposed. Va’eira catalogues the first seven plagues (blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail).
Pharaoh is a bull with his head down charging straight ahead. He fights growth and abhors change. Oh sure, he appears on the verge of change a few times, but these turn out to be mere illusion. You might argue that a chink in the armor appears with the fourth and seventh plagues, lice and hail, and again with the eighth plague, locusts. The lice inspire Pharaoh to say he will permit the Israelites to go out into the Wilderness to worship God under the condition that Moses plead with God to lift the plague:
Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me.” (Exodus 8:24)
But no sooner does God lift the plague than Pharaoh reneges:
So Moses left Pharaoh’s presence and pleaded with the Lord. And the Lord did as Moses asked: He removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his courtiers, and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:26-28)
Similarly, in the aftermath of the wholesale destruction of crops, herds, and property caused by the plague of hail, Pharaoh admits his guilt and pleads with Moses:
But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers. So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had foretold through Moses. (Exodus 9:34)
Psychologists and neurologists tell us that this is an aberration, not the norm. In an article entitled “The Neurobiology of Teshuvah” Dr. Allan Tobin of UCLA writes:
Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.
In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively training alternate neural pathways.
Given that, as Daniel Gilbert, Allan Tobin, and others in the fields of psychology and neurology have demonstrated, our personalities and values do change, it seems futile to fight it as Pharaoh did. Rather than asking, “Will I change?” we should be asking ourselves, “How will I change?” because then we can make growth and change a more thoughtful and deliberate process.
We might begin by monitoring our changes in value and priorities, behavior and relationships. What motivates our change? Is it fear, mistrust, or hatred? Are these changes justified? Or do we privilege idealism and hope while keeping our feet planted in the ground of realism?
How might we monitor changes in ourselves? Here’s one idea that came to me: Each year — perhaps in preparation for Rosh Hashanah — ask yourself a series of questions and write out short answers to each. Here are some suggested questions:
1. If I could change one thing about myself (not physically or financially), what would that be?
2. What do I believe to be the most valuable attributes/personality traits? How would I rate myself for each?
3. What are the three most important aspects of living a good life?
4. Who are the most important people in my life? Why?
5. What inspires the best in me?
6. What is most important to me?
After writing out answers to each question, seal what you’ve written in an envelope. The following year answer the questions again — as the changed person you now are — and then revisit what you wrote the previous year. Are you moving in the direction you want?
Even light bulbs change. We have three choices: We can bumble along, denying that we change (as Gilbert and his colleagues tell us most of us believe is the case). Or we can make grand and glorious resolutions we are unable to keep. Or we can revel in the glorious natural plasticity of our minds and more consciously direct our own growth and change.
Only Pharaoh stays in dry dock. Your ship is sailing. Whom do you want at the rudder?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman