Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Our Torah portion, Parashat Bo begins in the midst of the plagues against Egypt but with a clear distinction from the previous plagues. In the last Torah portion we learn that despite the experience of each plague upon the land, animals and people of Egypt, Pharaoh responds by hardening his heart to the plight of the Israelites and to Moses' demands to leave Egypt. At the outset of this portion God declares “ani hikhbad’ti et libo- and I will harden Pharaoh's heart.” It appears as if God is tampering with Pharaoh's free will. This poses theological difficulties for most readers. I would like to suggest a different interpretation of what I consider to be a very natural and unfortunately common process.
We discover much about Pharaoh's heart in the previous Torah portion- Va'erah. Six times we read the refrain that Pharaoh either "strengthened or hardened his heart" after each plague. At times we also read the phrase “v’lo shamah aleihem - and he did not listen to them." Pharaoh is described as one with an iron will, or as the Torah implies, an iron heart. He is a master at shutting himself off from the suffering of others and the word of God. Now our parashah opens on the eighth plague and God announces to Moses, I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, he will no longer be able to soften for he has shut himself down to the point of no return. Pharaoh has become trapped in a prison of his own design. He has built a superstructure of stubbornness and arrogance that is too dense, too kaved, too hard to untangle even if some part of himself wants to. He has solidified his own will to the point of creating his own prison.
The final three plagues reported in this parashah also allude to this process. These last three plagues all refer to a growing darkness. First the land is darkened by the plague of locusts. The people are then enveloped in darkness and are unable to move. Finally, the darkness swallows up the future of the people through the death of the Egyptian firstborn. All of Egypt, like Pharaoh, has become trapped in a consuming darkness. They are walled in and become paralyzed, unable to see the need for change or to act toward that aim.
Egypt represents a society based on the oppression of foreigners. It is a society blind to the suffering of others. Such a system must eventually implode for the darkness that it promotes will envelop and eliminate any possibility of a future. Nevertheless, our story teaches that ultimately the Divine force that emerges from compassion will overcome the darkness of human arrogance.
Pharaoh is a potentiality that lives within all human beings and certainly within all leaders. Power is a seductive force that breeds arrogance. Pharaoh may view himself as a God, yet he is painfully recognizable as typically human. He represents the capacity in each of us to shut down the heart if the ego is threatened; to stubbornly hold on to our own position, even if we know on some level that we are incorrect. The Pharaoh within shuts ourselves off to the pain of others, acts from pride and lacks humility. These are human qualities that we must all reckon with for they create a damaging darkness that leads to the destruction of land, relationships and future possibilities.
While we have all hardened ourselves to others at times, this week’s portion reminds us that the greatest danger lies in the potential to become frozen in that state and even to justify our hard-heartedness. After a certain point, even if we want to create a change it may become impossible to do so because of the walls we ourselves have built.
In such a situation, our tradition teaches us to reach out of ourselves for help. The psalmist states, “Min Hameitzar- from the narrow constricted place- karati Yah, I called out to Yah, Annani bamerchav Yah- I was answered with Yah’s wide open space."
Yah is Divine potential. When we feel that we need to make a change but cannot find a way, this is the time to “call out,” to ask for help. Whether we ask through prayer or by reaching out to a compassionate person, simply in the asking, do we begin to soften and open to possibilities.
Abraham Lincoln once said “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
To ask for help requires humility. This is precisely the quality that was lacking in Pharaoh. It is no wonder that Moses, the great redeemer is described as the most humble person that ever lived. It is the quality of humility that it necessary for real teshuvah- for true transformation of behavior and relationships.
Let Pharaoh be our warning and may Moses provide the calling.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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