Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hardened Hearts and Humility: Complicated Lessons from Parashat Bo

In my brief career as a teacher, I often struggle with when to harden my heart. Over the course of a semester, I forge personal bonds with each student and desperately want them to succeed. However, times arise when I need to demand better performance on homework or give a grade that I wish they did not deserve. In these cases, I need to flex my emotional muscles to brace for the feelings of guilt, disappointment, or sadness.

In my case, I chose to harden my own heart in order to do the difficult, but necessary thing. However, one of the greatest mysteries in the Biblical narrative is why God hardens Pharaoh's heart in the Exodus narrative. Don't all humans have free will? Wouldn't God want the Israelites to be freed as soon as possible with the least possible blood shed? According to Exodus 10:1-2, God hardens Pharaoh's heart:

א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ

ב. וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה:

1. ... in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst,

2. and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord."

Is it something that God does just to make a point? Does God want to create a dramatic affair to cement his legacy among the generations? Or maybe there is more to the story than appears in the first two verses of the parasha.

According to 10:3, God is so angry at pharaoh because he refuses to "humble himself before the Lord." Pharaoh has exhibited deep evil which requires drastic measures from the Divine. According to Moses Hayyim Luzzato in his work Misilat Yesharim, God needed to make His own heart hard in order to distance Himself from evil. A moral philosopher, Luzzato claims that our obligation to the other is usually infinite, and that the other's face demands that we do all we can for his or her benefit. However, when we encounter someone who intends to make us servile or do evil, we need to harden our faces to protect ourselves and prevent ourselves from doing evil. He writes, "But toward the other who would have us serve his or her evil, we must learn to harden our faces, just as the Torah depicts God hardening Pharaoh's heart -- which indicates God's own heart hardening -- and the similar image of God's hiding the divine face when confronting Israel's sin." (p.80)

Sometimes it is necessary to harden our hearts to protect our bodies and our souls.

However, most of the time, I think we do not need to harden our hearts. Rather, our fear convinces us that we always need to be in this protective mode. When we harden our hearts at every turn, in the face of every entreaty, our world becomes less kind, less giving, and less righteous. Too many times when we are confronted with need or suffering, we harden our hearts and distance ourselves from those struggling. We claim that such pain is inevitable, deserved, or unrelated to our own lives. This approach toward the poor and the vulnerable has led to a status quo in our country that should be a source of shame for us all. We harden our hearts not to protect ourselves from evil, but to guard ourselves from guilt. When we fall into this pattern, we protect our own egos and let the most vulnerable suffer further.

Sometimes we do need to harden ourselves, but most of the time we need to to humble our hearts and soften our countenances. When we make ourselves infinitely available to the other, we become profoundly vulnerable, but we also move further away from becoming pharaohs ourselves. As Jews, we should always strive to liberate those in bondage and not oppress them further with shame or patronizing. Our tradition guides us toward this goal and our struggling country demands it of us more now than ever.

Shabbat Shalom