Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Bo

“God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This statement troubles people. It has troubled people of faith for thousands of years. What kind of benevolent and loving God would harden Pharaoh’s heart and then condemn him for having a hardened heart? Early on, our sages determined that the problem we face happens because we divorce our sense of reality from our practice of study. We accept that it is foundational in Torah study that one is not allowed to check his/her real-world experience at the door. We teach that one’s worldly experience is an essential tool in making Torah usable in the real world. While I understand that both Biblical Literalism and Biblical Dismissalism are on the rise, I find that both happen because people never really engage the text in a meaningful way. Whether one runs from the text or refuses to debate the text, either way, the faith world loses.

The God of Torah is often a metaphor for the natural order, and in this story, it is not that God hardened Pharaoh; no, Pharaoh hardened Pharaoh. Despite the notion of free will, we live with default behaviors. Huge pieces of our lives just happen with no planning sessions or brainstorming. We breathe, our organs function, and we respond emotionally to specific stimuli. Even some of our learned behaviors become simply a part of our conditioned responses. When we consistently act or respond in certain ways over and over again, one can argue that it takes intentional free will actions to break from those behaviors.

Pharaoh defaulted to hate and venomous treatment of others. From the Biblical narrative, we learn that he had no place for compassion for his Hebrew slaves. He held little or no concern for the infrastructure and well being of his own nation and people. At one point, Egyptians approach Pharaoh to let the people go, and he refused until it was too late. He had to win at all cost, and it cost him dearly. His heart hardened with each dismissal of human dignity. When the destruction of the plagues grew more and more severe, his answer was to fight back to prove that he was more “God” than God. His refusal to see into the destruction his decisions caused destroyed not only the first born and the cattle, but the entire army he would subsequently send after Israel: the army that drowned in the waters as they came back together. Ultimately, everything for which he fought crumbled before him.

We have an obligation to engage each other and remember that no situation can ever be seen so one-sided that it ignores the very dignity of everyone else involved. When having our way takes precedence over everyone and everything else, we all lose … and sometimes, there is no return from the loss. Horrifically, we see this play out in family and community dynamics every day. We will always experience moments when we disagree. We will have moments when, in fear of losing control, we act badly. We will fail each other, and sometimes over again. We must, however, always remember that we are not replaceable in each other’s lives and that a hole under one side of the rowboat takes everyone in the boat. At the same time, our sages teach that the gates for healing and restoration remain open for as long as one could want to walk through them. Healing a life, restoring one’s dignity, turning to compassion save, not only the individual, but the entire world. IF we save a life, it is as though we saved the world. We get in trouble, but we do not ever have to get stuck. We cannot let ourselves get so stuck that the path of return is impossible to find or traverse. So set on destruction was Pharaoh that even God could not restore him. We need never go to that extreme. Shabbat Shalom.