Shabbat shalom! My Torah portion is Parshat Bo. In my portion, the Israelites are in Egypt, still in slavery. According to the Torah, God sends ten plagues to the Egyptians to make Pharaoh free the Israelites. (Extra credit points on the test if anyone can name all ten! Wait, seriously, can we get extra points on the term finals for that?) After each plague, Pharaoh plans on freeing the Israelites, but suddenly “hardens his heart,” and decides not to allow them to leave. For the first five plagues, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but for the last five plagues, the Torah reads, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
This repeated statement raises the question: If God truly wants what is best for the Israelites and tries to get them out of slavery in Egypt, why did God continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart? The Torah also says that God sends Moses to Pharaoh and instructs Moses to tell him, “Let my people go.” That means that God was both making Moses tell Pharaoh to free the Israelites and making Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go. So who exactly is God, and what gives God the right or a reason to play the somewhat twisted cat-and-mouse game described in the Torah?
Many commentators have tried to find different solutions to this question. Centuries ago, Rabbi Yochanan tried to answer this question. He claimed that God was trying to prove a point to Pharaoh that God has control over everyone and everything on Earth. This suggests that no human is truly free to make their own decisions, and that all of our moral decisions are simply an illusion. Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, who is a brother-in-law to Rabbi Yochanan, also tried to answer the question of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Simeon ben Lakish stated that the plagues were warnings to the Egyptians, saying that “Since God warned him five times and Pharaoh refused to pay attention and stiffened his heart, God told him ‘I will now add more trouble to what you have made for yourself.’ ” The point of view shown in these two commentaries is that God is a being with control over everything, and that God gets angry at people and punishes them when they think otherwise. In this case, Simeon ben Lakish suggests that because Pharaoh was considered to be a god, God punishes the Egyptians with not only ten plagues, but also a leader (i.e. Pharaoh) that cannot make the choice to stop them.
There are two more commentaries that I found important. These are that of Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of the 12th century and 20th century psychologist Erich Fromm. Maimonides was one of the first to suggest that God was not truly the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that Pharaoh made one bad choice after another, eventually leading him to a point where he had fewer and fewer options on what to do. Around 800 years later, Fromm amplifies this idea and describes this as Pharaoh reaching “a point of no return.” Fromm also explains that every evil act committed by a person leads to more evil acts and eventually a hardened or quote “deadened” heart, while every good act causes more good acts and leads to a softer or quote “more alive” heart. The step that Fromm described as reaching a point of no return is when eventually, when your heart is completely hardened, evil acts no longer become choices, and they simply continue until there is nothing left.
Before I talk about my opinions on the matter, I first need to step back and talk about one big, general question: who and what is God? One of the first things that got me thinking about an answer to this question happened during my mitzvah project. For my project, I worked with my mom at her job at Jewish Family and Children’s Services Family Table. Family Table is New England’s largest kosher food pantry. According to the JF&CS website, “Everyone should have enough nutritious food to feed their family. Family Table provides healthy food on a monthly and emergency basis to individuals and families in need. Our mission is to offer food in a way that meets nutritional and spiritual needs.” (For more information on Family Table, check out the JF&CS website.) Distributions of food to needy families take place one Sunday a month. Every month, I went to Waltham with my mom to set out rows and rows of shelf-stable food, pack bags for people coming to pick up their groceries, and help other volunteers who were packing food to deliver to clients.
The thing that struck me most about the whole experience is that there were large amounts of people who came month after month after month to volunteer. They all could have decided that it was a waste of their perfectly good Sunday. They could have thought it would be a better idea to stay home and sleep late, and sit on the couch with a cup of coffee. (I know that I wished that’s what I was doing the first few times I volunteered.) But they didn’t. They came all the way down to Waltham and worked as hard as they could to make sure that these families got what they needed. These incredible people have helped me come to a conclusion: they were working because their conscience told them that it was the right thing to do. Their conscience told them that if everybody was selfish and stayed home to take a break for themselves, Family Table wouldn’t be able to run the way it does, and the people who rely on it would be in dire situations.
Thanks to this incredible experience, I have been able to see God in a new light. I stopped trying to picture God as something in stories that I could never believe in and began thinking of God as our conscience and our ability to feel empathy. Every person has God inside of them, and it’s up to us whether or not we pay any attention. And just like our conscience, the more we ignore God, the easier it becomes to completely forget that God exists. Based on that new image of God, I believe that a “hardened heart” is actually a heart that has made so many selfish decisions that completely ignore God that God is no longer even there.
But being a selfish person isn’t the only way to have a hardened heart. There are also sometimes situations that we are born into that make it practically impossible not to have a hardened heart. For example, Pharaoh was never taught that it was necessary to show empathy towards other people. Imagine being a little kid growing up with everything you could ever want. You’ve never been put into a position where you need to consider how your actions affect other people’s feelings. All you have been told is that one day, you will be in charge, and that you need to consider how your actions will benefit your country. With that single goal in mind, Pharaoh doesn’t stop to think about how the Israelites or his people feel, and only thinks about if it is in the economic benefit of Egypt to keep slaves. And, unfortunately, in a nation that’s entire survival is based around slaves making things for the Egyptians, it makes a whole lot of sense to keep them there.
I’d say that the biggest thing I have learned about what it means to have a hardened heart is that you should try your best to never ignore your conscience; God is inside of every person for a reason. Pharaoh took his own partially hardened heart and amplified the damage, but eventually, he had gone so far down the road of “evil acts” that God has finally left him, and in that way it is not God choosing to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but more the absence of God that forces Pharaoh to continue keeping the Israelites as slaves.
A big mistake that people make is forgetting that this voice is in everybody. Somewhat recently, I have been in a situation where I was having trouble deciding the right thing to do. With the somewhat forceful help of a few amazing friends, I was able to contact someone who has the ability to help sort out the problem. However, I was internally conflicted. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the people causing me problems didn’t deserve to be treated with as much respect as the people who helped me, but that is where people often go wrong. People, myself included, often forget that the people we don’t respect are people, and that they have feelings too. Because of this, we end up making the problems worse and worse because those feelings don’t allow us to see the other person as human enough to sit down and have an honest conversation with them. We then enter a vicious cycle. We dislike the person, so we have less empathy towards them, so we don’t think rationally and assertively about the problem, so we dislike the person more, and so on. It’s possible to make sure that you don’t enter this cycle. When you are in a situation where you could treat someone without respect, stop and think. What could this person be thinking about what just happened? I can’t say that you will like everyone and be friends with the entire world, but I can tell you that there is in fact a right way and a wrong way to dislike a person. I know it sounds a bit too idealistic, but if you remember about everyone else’s thoughts as well as your own, you won’t have as much of a bad experience. When you remember other people’s thoughts, your heart will not be hardened, and you will still have the ability to make these decisions for yourself instead of being disrespectful on impulse.
There are many people that have helped me a lot over this entire process. First of all, I would like to thank my parents for being supportive of me every step of my journey, and to my brother Eli, who somehow managed to not forget about me even through his senior year of high school, something that I can’t imagine was easy to do. I want to thank my tutor Beth Polasky for teaching me how to chant my Torah and Haftarah, all of my teachers here at the HBT Chaverim school, both current and former, for giving me a strong background in reading Hebrew and chanting all the blessings and prayers, and of course Rabbi Penzner for helping me write my d’var Torah. I want to thank all of my friends for helping to calm me down when I was stressing out (so, almost every day,). Finally, I of course want to thank everyone who came today to support me. I can’t express how much it means to me that you all care enough to come out, even if it meant long car or plane rides to make it into Boston. Shabbat shalom!