Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Bo, the parasha of the final three plagues and the ultimate release and exodus of the Israelites from our enslavement in Egypt. We read about the lowest point for the Egyptians – death of the firstborn – and the highest point – freedom – for the enslaved Israelites. Every plague brings Egypt and its leader Pharaoh closer to relenting in its oppression of the Israelites. But each plague also renews Pharaoh’s resistance, even after the final and most awful plague. Sometimes we read that Gd has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Other times, Pharaoh’s arrogance and misbehavior seem to be wholly his own. What can we learn from this heart hardening? And what can we learn from Moses and Aaron’s leadership of a people seeking its own freedom in dark days, days when even ten terrible plagues can’t dissuade unjust leaders from relenting their oppression?
Near the start of this week’s Torah portion, and at Gd’s command, Moses and Aaron return again to Pharaoh. Gd speaks to Pharaoh through them, demanding that he let Gd’s people go. Gd warns Pharaoh that the next plague will be locusts, which will eat up whatever harvest survived the hail (an earlier plague) and fill the earth, Pharaoh’s palaces, and every Egyptian’s house. Pharaoh’s courtiers encourage him to let the men or perhaps the Israelite elders and representatives go. But when Pharaoh discovers that Moses and Aaron mean to take everyone, men, women, young and old, and also the flocks and herds, Pharaoh again refuses to let them go. The locusts come, eat all the grasses of the field and the fruit of the trees. Nothing is left for food, and in a hurry, Pharaoh is sorry. He pleads with Moses and Aaron to beseech Gd to remove the locusts, and they do. A great wind sends the locusts out and not a single one remains in all of Egypt. Then the Torah writes: Va’yechazek Adonai et lev Paro, v’lo shilach et b’nei Yisrael (Exodus 12:20). Gd strengthened (or stiffened) Pharaoh’s heart and he would not send the Israelites. Pharoh would not send them out to freedom.
There is so much to unpack in this small segment of the story in Torah but for now I want to focus on only two big ideas. The first of these is the very remarkable idea that Moses would refuse to accept a compromise in which only the elite or just the men would be set free to worship. Instead, Moses insists that everyone go, the low and the high, the young and the old, the women and the men. Pharaoh’s courtiers, despite their apparent awareness that Gd has outmaneuvered and ultimately overpowered Pharaoh, nonetheless encourage the monarch to send just the Israelite men rather than the whole people. This is a half-hearted acceptance, a kind of bargaining, which still imagines that the Egyptians might eek out a small victory if they can maintain control over the majority of the Israelites while giving a few of them the privileges of freedom. Moses’ refusal to accept such an arrangement, therefore, is a profound act of solidarity and a profound act of peoplehood. No Israelite is less a part of the people than another. It is this very act of insistence and resistance which ensures that the Exodus is the story of our people and not just the story of our leaders. Despite the proximity of freedom for some in the face of the enslavement of others, Moses turns down the deal and in so doing provides great ethical leadership. Because it can be the story of many rather than the story of a few, the Exodus has held a place of high honor among those who work for and speak of liberation. Ken yehi ratzon (may it be so).
The other idea I want to probe more from this small segment of our Torah portion is the meaning of the teaching that Gd hardened Pharaoh’s heart. To start, I think I must share that the idea that Gd would harden anyone’s heart has always been a stumbling block for me in my personal understanding of Gd in the midst of this story of freedom. In a sense, perhaps, I have always wanted freedom to be free; to be unstained by any violence, to be earned through love rather than through fear, to be secured by mutual awareness and acceptance of each others’ humanity rather than through the need to overcome or overpower those whose hearts are hardened. It has sometimes seemed that Torah was teaching that Gd hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to overcome it. Overpowering a hardened heart might win Gd some glory, but I’d personally feel a greater sense of closeness to Gd when Gd wins hearts rather than overcomes them. My years as an organizer for economic justice and LGBT rights taught me that not only must we win people’s hearts and minds in order to win dignity, but also that, Yes, we can.
There is another reason right now, however, why I find heart hardening to be a challenging characteristic for me to hold in my concept of Divinity. To put it simply, it’s like Gd forced a big, giant step backwards. In my lifetime, there has appeared to me to be an arc to our moral and ethical progress, a slow bending toward justice, toward greater freedoms for all or at least for some. The inclusive and welcoming community that I serve at Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel can locate itself on that arc. And while we have seen tremendous progress in the protection of the human and civil rights of some, we can also admit that we have not seen tremendous progress for all. Some of us are just waking up to the depth of the reality that not everyone has been carried by that wave, that many folks have continued to suffer, that some folks have seen their suffering increase over the same time that we have seen other freedoms increase. We can add to this equation the oppression and suffering caused by forced labor, poverty, income inequality, debilitating medical and student debts, and much more. I admit that I myself still have much to learn.
In years past, I would have thought that the plagues would have been motivation enough for Pharaoh to end his wicked ways. Why, I wondered, would Gd need to harden Pharaoh’s heart? When I looked at it this way, I thought that Pharaoh would have otherwise relented and freed the Israelites, had Gd not intervened and hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But this week, on a closer look at the text and with a new frame of mind shaped by what is happening in the world all around us, I found a new meaning. I found myself reading this passage differently. I began to see Gd hardening Pharaoh’s heart not as a description of what Gd does to Pharaoh in order to continue the fight, but rather as a description of what might happen consequentially when too much good luck or good fortune blinds us to the truth that the Source of that good is beyond and not us. The danger is thinking that our good fortune belongs to us, rather than recognizing it as a gift from Gd. The danger is we might choose to keep it, rather than give it away. This is what Pharaoh does when he receives a reprieve from the plague of the locusts and turns around to rescind his order granting freedom to the Israelites. In the Torah, Gd causes the locusts to come and Gd causes the locusts to go. When the good that Gd gives us makes us blind to others, when privilege combines with an unwillingness to turn, and this is at the root of our hard heartedness, it is as if Gd has hardened our hearts. The hardening is not a consequence of the good which Gd gave us, but a consequence of what we do with it. Like Pharaoh, our privilege can be used to harden us, mistakenly, in our belief that we truly deserve any excesses of power or resources that we have and that we can continue on behaving as we did before. Or, like Pharaoh, the relief we feel when the locusts are lifted, can also cause us to persist in our belief that we have arrived, been saved, and cause us to persist in behaving as if our privileges, or our rights, meager as they may sometimes be, or much more substantial as they sometimes are, could continue on without the blood, sweat and tears of fighting for them. There is a danger that we become complacent like Pharaoh who believed that he could continue on just as he had, blind to the suffering of others, as soon as the locusts had been lifted. And there is a danger that we become complacent like Pharaoh who believed that as the locusts had been lifted, so too further tragedies could be averted or reversed. In both cases, for Pharaoh and for us, hearts harden with privilege, good fortune, and relief.
Gd plays a role in heart hardening when we allow our own good fortune and luck to blind us to the needs of others and also the need we have to continue to fight for our own rights, despite any temporary reprieves. We can be like Pharaoh, who takes newfound luck as an opportunity to return to the oppressive behaviors from before. Or we can be like Moses and Aaron, who refuse to take temporary gain for some as a sufficient deal for the many. Yes, we can, and we must remember to win hearts. When we decide who we will be and therefore how we must behave, let us also remember that as much as this decision is individual, it is national, playing out on the level of peoplehood. In this case, Moses’ and Aaron’s example teaches us how to stick together, as one people, indivisible, under Gd.