Parashat Bo: Freeing the Hard Heart

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, January 7, 2011]

I've been thinking about freedom lately. I just got back from Washington, DC which, despite all that frustrates us in American politics does, after a couple weeks, leave one feeling steeped in lofty ideals. I went to the Museum of American History and, after the quick gay pilgrimages to the the ruby slippers, Julia Child's kitchen and Carol Burnett's famous Gone with the Wind curtain rod dress, I settled in and got serious. I walked through the dimly lit, humidity-controlled gallery that houses the Star Spangled Banner which is, I'd never realized, enormous. And I confess that, for all my counter-culture rhetoric, I found myself choked up.

I then visited the African American gallery. There I saw physical artifacts of American slavery, including first editions of slave memoirs. I thought, "How am I 50 years old and have never read a slave memoir?" On display was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. I bought a reprint in the bookstore and read it in a single breath. In elegant prose Jacobs gives over both her painful experience and her sense of moral outrage. She could not threaten military action to end slavery or promise political reform. She could only offer her words. I thought about how much ink was spilled trying to end the institution of slavery on this continent - and how much blood. And how a practice so obviously, deeply wrong could have been defended - to the death! - by the white, slave-owning South.

This week's parashah, which is called Bo looks at the question of the price of freedom, and why that price might in fact be so high. In the story, we, the Children of Israel, are still in bondage in Egypt. God has already inflicted seven plagues to free the Hebrew slaves, and the Egyptians are certainly suffering. Yet Pharaoh has not relented. God says to Moshe:

בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו ואת לב עבדיו למען שתי אתתי אלה בקר

Bo el Par'oh ki ani hichbadti et libo v'et lev avadav l'ma'an shiti ototai eleh b'kirbi.

Which means: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants so that I might show my signs among them."

Hichbadti et libo. "I have hardened his heart." This is a troubling bit of Torah that countless generations of Jews have had to contend with. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned 19 times in the book of Exodus. In 10 instances, Pharaoh does the hardening; in 9 - nearly half the time! - it is God. What possible purpose is served by God hardening Pharaoh's heart? The text implies, and the sages agree, that it is so that the remainder of the plagues may be inflicted; so that the oppressor comes to have a full appreciation of God's power. Somehow the process of change must be big, and dramatic, and violent. But for whose benefit? So the Egyptians give up and don't chase down the Israelites? If that's the case, the project was a failure; they chased the Israelites down anyway, even after 10 plagues. Or maybe the purpose was to establish a level of violence and suffering compared to which the state of slavelessness would ultimately feel preferable?

Or maybe the end is retribution, plain and simple. That no one should profit by acts of cruelty and oppression. As Lincoln wrote in his Second Inaugural Address, in the middle of the Civil War:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

But of course no matter how much violence we think the theater of social change requires, we're also stuck with a tricky theological problem. According to the p'shat, the simple reading of this verse, God is setting Pharaoh up by hardening his heart. God is nullifying Pharaoh's free will in order to impose punishment. Pharaoh is framed. Not that one needs to feel excessive sympathy toward him; but one might certainly feel some suspicion here about God.

Taking a second look at the phrase hichbad'ti et libo - "I have hardened his heart" - might be fruitful. The root is k-b-d, which in Hebrew doesn't have to do with hardness as much as with heft. Kaved, heavy. Koved, weight. "I have made his heart heavy," could be another way to translate this verse. Said this way, it sounds less like God announcing a strategy than God admitting a sad fact. "I have made Pharaoh's heart too heavy to move, too cumbersome to change."

I think this reading says something about the nature of our hearts and the nature of power. Change is not easy in the best of circumstances. But when one has become accustomed to power, to ease, to privilege and safety, the heart can become so weighty as to be immobile. Under this reading, God is not acting on Pharaoh at all. God is acknowledging, perhaps even lamenting, the human nature that God created. "Yes, Pharaoh's heart is now immobile; and yes, that is the nature of the hearts of tyrants; and yes, I'm responsible for the nature of the hearts of tyrants - and of all people."

Another resonance of this word, hichbadti, is one you might have already guessed at. The same root gives us kavod - "honor." If we project this shade of meaning onto it, you have an even greater resignation on God's part. God says, "I am forced to honor Pharaoh's heart." That is, I made it, I am prevented from changing it; all I can do is show signs and wonders.

"Poor Pharaoh," this reading seems to suggest, stuck in his narrow place with his heavy, unchangeable heart. So burdened with years of power and profit and fear of the unknown that the machinery of his heart has come to a standstill.

I know it might not sit well to look at Pharaoh this way; it feels too sympathetic toward the arch-villain of our collective imagination as he holds firm against the inevitable tide of emancipation. But the parashah seems to invite it. After all, it opens with bo el-Par'oh, - "come to Pharaoh," not lech el-Par'oh, "go to Pharaoh." The vantage point is Pharaoh's; he is the fixed point and Moshe - and we - are being invited into his world.

Uncomfortable, certainly. But while sympathy might in fact not be required, looking deeper than the villain archetype is valuable. We know no one is simply evil. That's comic book stuff. Seeing southern slave owners as something other than human; seeing Hitler as a monster and not a person; are both errors. Dangerous errors. It's uncomfortable to sit with the idea that we share anything with these people, let alone the capacity to do terrible things.

But of course we do. We are not just Moshe. We are Pharaoh. We have the capacity to hurt, to kill, to enslave. But we don't. Maybe because we've made our moral choices. Or maybe we haven't; we are simply spared that trial because the opportunity has never arisen.

But our hearts do share something with Pharaoh's. We feel how difficult it is to acknowledge when we're wrong. How difficult it is to change. How difficult to give up power. How difficult to acknowledge the suffering of others, and to see our own complicity in it.

I hope you will forgive me as I point out things we know but which are hearts are hardened against.

We know how our cars and air conditioners poison the environment. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

We know the unspeakable cruelty enacted on animals through factory farming, approved by us every time we choose the cheap meat or eggs at the grocery store. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

We know that many of the cheap tzatzkes we buy are that way because children overseas are making them in conditions of near-slavery. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

Or when we learn new ways that our actions might cause harm that we weren't previously aware of - even how our use of perfume and scented detergents can cause others physical suffering. We could ask ourselves right now, "why don't we stop," And we will have no defense.

Unless the defense in all of these cases is: Adonai hichbid et libi.

God hardened my heart. This is our nature. We do not give up power or privilege or habit easily. And we cannot at every moment have our hearts open to the full suffering of this planet.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote thirty years ago regarding the horrors of the Vietnam War:

Most of us prefer to disregard the dreadful deeds we do over there. The atrocities committed in our name are too horrible to be credible. It is beyond our power to react vividly to the ongoing nightmare, day after day, night after night. So we bear graciously other people's suffering...O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.

Yes, we are evolved from the same Creation that gave us Pharaoh and that gave us generations of holders, traders and hunters of slaves on American soil. Our hearts are not identical to theirs, but they are akin.

But buck up. We are also different; or at least we can be. If not in our natures, then in our choices. We can choose to change. We can choose to change now. We do not need to wait for the signs and wonders. We do not need to suffer the plagues or wars or disasters or other retributions that will change us by force. We can jumpstart our immobile hearts and act on what we know, even if it's inconvenient or painful.

And our ability to choose to have less power, less ease, less comfort because there is something else that matters more, well that, thank God, is in our nature too.

So when we sing for the freedom of the slaves - the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, the black slaves of the Americas, or all who are oppressed in the world today - let us also sing for Pharaoh's freedom. For our freedom. That we may not be oppressors. That when a new prophet comes and says, "Let my people go," we may have the strength and wisdom to say, "Yes. It's time. Let us all be free."