Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hard Heart / Parshat Bo

Parshat Bo recounts the final three plagues against Egypt: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn). Inserted between ninth and final plagues is an excursion from the narrative to describe the soon-to-be annual pesach sacrifice and Feast of unleavened bread.

Our parashah opens with these troubling words:
Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display My signs among them, and that you my recount in the hearing of your sons and of your son’s sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)
These verses inspire many questions. Among them: If God wants Pharaoh to release the Israelites, why does God harden his heart? Isn’t this counter-productive? If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, doesn’t this impinge upon his free will? If Pharaoh’s decisions are under the control of God, why does God punish Pharaoh and all Egypt? We might even ask about the enormous cost -- economic ruin, suffering, and death – at which Israel’s redemption was purchased.

The words, recount in the hearing of your sons and of your son’s sons… foreshadow the instructions to remember the Exodus and recount it yearly in a festive and ritualistic manner, precisely as Exodus 12:1-28 instructs. The suggestion here is that God is orchestrating a cataclysmic showdown between God and Pharaoh, an event so big, so public, and so dramatic that neither the Israelites nor the Egyptians – who have been told that Pharaoh is a god – can ignore reality or misinterpret the meaning of the events they witness: God is the sole power in the universe while Pharaoh is merely a tyrant.

Yet God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is troubling from both a philosophical and a moral perspective. Philosophically, if people are endowed with free will, God cannot or does not interfere with it. Morally, if God were to constrict or void free will, how do we explain the ensuing suffering? Is God’s desire to provide incontrovertible evidence of divine power over Pharaoh a sufficient explanation? Religiously, why does God seek to make a mockery of Egyptians, given that humiliating others is against Jewish law?

The Rabbis, too, were troubled by Torah’s assertion that God manipulated Pharaoh. In Bereishit Rabbah 13:3 we read:

For I have hardened his heart (Exodus 10:1). R. Yochanan said: Doesn’t this provide heretics with grounds for claiming that he [Pharaoh] had no means for repenting, since it says, For I have hardened his heart? To which R. Shimon b. Lakish replied: let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up. If it concerns the scorners, He scorns them (Proverbs 3:34). When God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then God closes his heart against repentance so that He should not exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said, “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart, so I will add to your uncleanness.” Hence, For I have hardened his heart. What does hikbadti (“I hardened”) imply? That God made his heart like a liver (kabed) into which even if boiled a second time no juice enters. So also was the heart of Pharaoh made like a liver, and he did not receive the words of God. Hence, For I have hardened his heart.
What is R. Shimon b. Lakish telling us? He is saying that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to extract revenge and justify plague and punishment. Rather, people who have had the opportunity to repent numerous times and do not, become mired in their ways and can no longer change. Erich Fromm made this point:
Every evil act tends to harden a man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good deed tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action. But there comes a point of no return when man’s heart has become to hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom. (Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods, p. 81)
It is not God who annulled or contravened Pharaoh’s free will. It is Pharaoh who relinquished his free will by refusing to consider the moral ramifications of his decisions, by refusing to consider compassion rather than cruelty, by relentlessly pursuing a path of destruction.

The response – perhaps the only response – is hinted at by the excursion Torah takes to instruct us concerning the annual celebration of Pesach: come together in groups, remember what happened here, ask questions, tell the story. Each telling will be inspired by the questions asked by children, whose questions are penetrating, brutally honest, and who neither entertain nor tolerate moral ambiguity and hypocrisy. Each telling will address the recurrent problem of tyrants who deny the freedom of others, brutality that demeans human beings and diminishes the image of God in the world. The need for and Redemption is ever-present in our individual lives and in our world. We do not expect it to float down from heaven, but rather come through our grit and determination, the work of our hands, and product of our joint efforts with others. God provides the vision, motivation, fuel, and support. We provide the muscle.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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