From this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Bo:
But God hardened Pharoah’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go (Exodus 10:10)
For many, this teaches a disturbing lesson about the nature of tyranny: Pharaoh’s evil seems to largely result from divine manipulation – he appears more as God’s puppet or plaything than a genuine tyrant per se. What are we to make of such a portrayal – and in particular what do we make of God’s troubling role in this story? (Or as my Torah study students might say, who is the real tyrant here?)
Many commentators have pointed out that there is an interesting evolution in the wording of Pharoah’s refusals. At first, the Torah seems to leave God out of the equation (see for instance, Exodus 7:13: “And Pharoah’s heart was hardened…) Only during the final plagues do we read that God hardened Pharoah’s heart. Some indicate that this points to a certain inevitablity in Pharaoh’s behavior. Perhaps to say God hardened Pharoah’s heart really means that his heart became impossibly, irrevocably hardened over years of oppressive behavior.
This is, indeed a psychological/spiritual phenomenon we experience all too well. We all have a “Pharoah aspect” to our souls: the tendency to accommodate ourselves to oppression as a status quo, to the point that we become callous and cynical to even the possibility of a life beyond. This is the tragedy of the hardened heart: the inability to see beyond the pain – yes, even that which we might create ourselves – into the hope for a better future.
I am writing these particular words from Israel, where I am preparing to participate in a week long symposium sponsored by Meretz USA and Brit Tzedek Ve’Shalom. Along with twenty other participants, we will meet with Israeli and Palestinian politicians and peace activists in Israel and the Palestinian territories to learn about the latest prospects for peace and coexistence in Israel/Palestine. I am looking forward to learning much more about the diligent work of those who, against all odds, seek and pursue Shalom in this troubled part of the world.
Though this is a critical time for the peace process, it would not be an overstatement to say there are many who are increasingly cynical about it and its prospects. Indeed, after so much pain and tragedy, it is all too easy for us to simply accommodate ourselves to the pain – to harden our hearts to the idea of a real and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. But as our Torah portion reminds us this week, pain, suffering and oppression are not simply inevitable. Our collective liberation is more than just a naive dream, if only we are ready to really, truly work for it.
I look forward to sharing my experiences with you during the coming week.