Bo – Fred Diamond, 12th January 2019
As you’ll have heard, this week’s Parasha, Bo, is building up to one of the main events of Sh’mot, the book of Exodus, namely the Exodus itself. Let me start by plugging the weekly parasha discussion sessions that recently started on Thursday evenings – it’s been really interesting and informative learning about what’s in the portion, and stimulating hearing other people’s thoughts and interpretations – and you don’t have to know anything beforehand to attend and get a lot out of it. Shoshana, who led this week’s session, I think used the word “jam-packed” to describe the portion – so was the discussion. A lot happens in Bo, but I actually want to talk, at least partly, about what’s missing from the parasha. I’ll come back to that – first let me review what’s in it.
We start with God telling Moses that he’s hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order for God to be able to show his power. Moses asks Pharaoh, again, to let his people go so they can worship God. Pharaoh concedes at his courtiers behest, but he realizes Moses is up to something in wanting everyone, and the flocks, to be released – Pharaoh says no, only the men can go. Then come the devastating locusts. Pharaoh asks for forgiveness – locusts stop. Pharaoh doesn’t let them go – then comes darkness. Pharaoh agrees to let all the people go, but not the livestock. Not good enough – the final plague is on its way – the killing of the first-born. But first the Israelites follows God’s instructions via Moses, to “borrow” the Egyptians gold and silver, and to slaughter lambs and mark the doorposts with the blood so their houses will be passed over by the plague. Finally Pharaoh relents during the night and the Israelites are free to go, with the livestock, and the Egyptians’ silver and gold.
The narrative is interrupted though by lengthy instructions on how to commemorate Pesach. We’re told not just about the Paschal lamb and marking the doorways, but also matzah and maror – bitter herbs – as part of the ritual. And later about the ritual of pidyon ha’ben, redeeming the first-born as another act of commemoration of the redemption, and finally the sign upon your hand and symbol on your forehead – interpreted as wearing t’fillin. This is not “live commentary”. This is all retrospective. It’s aimed at posterity – it’s all about memorializing the momentous event.
Coming back to the narrative though, there are several troubling things about the story. First of all there’s the dilemma that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, in order to be able to punish him and show his awesome power. This hardly seems fair – how can Pharaoh be held responsible if God made him do it? You could say – well, we still have to accept responsibility for our actions. You can’t make a philosophical argument for innocence on the basis of determinism. That’s just not going to hold up in court. What’s more disturbing though is the fate of ordinary Egyptians. We hear that they wanted to free the slaves, but Pharaoh refused – why are they all punished? Why are their first-born slaughtered? We’re told even the maidservant, even the captive. This is an enormous collective punishment. Maybe it’s not fair, but collective responsibility is a fact of life, and collective punishment is a harsh reality.
There are other troubling aspects – there’s the fact that Moses and Aaron are not negotiating with Pharaoh in good faith, saying they just want to go to the desert to worship God. There’s the borrowing of the gold and silver, for keeps. There’s no attempt to shelter Egyptians from the slaughter.
But coming back to Pharaoh, and God hardening his heart so he can teach him – or really mainly us – the readers – a lesson… that lesson seems to be all about God’s power, not about moral or ethical responsibility. Not only is there a lack of justice in some respects – there’s an absence of empathy. When Pharaoh relents and frees the slaves, it’s not out of a sense of justice or compassion; it’s to save his skin, or what’s left of it. When I hear the phrase “to harden one’s heart” my initial interpretation has to do with desensitization. But reading the text more carefully, and putting it in context, you see that’s not even what’s going on. I don’t know what the connotation of the phrase “hichbad’ti et halev” would be in modern Hebrew, but the usage here is really much more suggestive of stubbornness than desensitization. There was no sensitivity in the first place – empathy is so absent that we’re not even alerted to its absence.
That’s what I want to focus on that’s missing from the parasha – empathy – the lack of it – and my more instinctive interpretation of “heart-hardening” as desensitization. It’s something I’m aware of in myself – finding it easier to walk by people asking for money without taking notice. And it’s too easy to rationalize, to give myself excuses, to walk by and tell myself – it’s ok – I’ll donate to established charities, where I know it’ll be put to good use – I don’t know what this person’s going to do with it. I walked past a guy on Waterloo Bridge with a sign saying he was collecting money for an eye operation. Really? Maybe – I don’t know – I carry on walking. About 50 feet later I see a pound on the pavement. I think – ah, ok, I gotta go give it to that guy – he certainly needs it more than me, but I’m running a little late – I pick it up and tell myself I’ll give it to him on the way back. And guess what – he wasn’t there on the way back. I should have gone back right away and given it to him – so what if I was a little late. I did give the pound to someone else asking for money. And I did see the same guy a few weeks later and gave him even more, but that doesn’t excuse my initial reaction.
Sometimes I can even conveniently blame a higher authority for hardening my heart. I hear the announcement in Liverpool Street Station saying not to give to people asking for money – OK I’m off the hook here. There are ambient influences that desensitize us – they can even be well-intentioned. But we have to keep caring, and doing our part to improve the way we treat each other. There are many ways we can do that: tzedakah, volunteering, political action, and it’s a collective responsibility. We suffer as a society – we suffer collectively – when we fail.
I went to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last month. The Holocaust is of course an extreme – I guess the most extreme – example of a society’s failure in that regard, and the catastrophic consequences. The Museum’s exhibits convey a lot of powerful testimony, and important messages, and disturbing images. One that really sticks with me is a film clip of the local German population having to file through a camp after its liberation to make them face up to the atrocities. Some of the locals were more stoic, others more upset. One woman was so distraught it was hard to watch – I think because it was so easy to imagine myself in her place. Of course I can’t know how complicit or aware she’d been of what had been happening nearby – she was probably just willfully ignorant, but her grief and remorse were palpable, her feeling of responsibility for the tragedy, as part of a community receiving collective punishment. That image captured the empathy that was absent from the parasha, and things that were present – desensitization and its consequences, and the reality of collective responsibility. And I want to use the parasha as a reminder to soften our hearts, to maintain our awareness and sensitivity to others suffering, and to let that drive our actions.
Va-Era, 5th January 2019 – Marc Saperstein
There are many rather puzzling and perplexing passages in our parasha. For example,
**What is the significance of the two names of God, as mentioned in the very first verses: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name” (Exod. 6:3), followed by the Hebrew letters יהוה or YHWH, pronounced by biblical scholars Yahweh, by Christians: “Jehovah,” by Jews: “Adonai,” or “the Lord,” or ha-Shem. Yet it is clear that according to the narratives in Genesis, God did indeed use the name YHWH with the Patriarchs (for example, saying to Abraham, “I am YHWH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession” (Gen. 15:7).
**How are we to understand that difficult assertion later on in the parasha that God will harden the heart of Pharaoh so that he will not accede to Moses’ request (Exod 7:3 and elsewhere)? If God is responsible for Pharaoh’s stubbornness, why should Pharaoh and the Egyptians (who had no input into the decision) be punished by the plagues, especially the death of every first-born child?
**And what is the purpose of the magic show which Aaron performs before Pharaoh’s court, changing his rod into a snake, which swallows the snakes of the Egyptian magicians (Exod. 7:8-13)? Is God’s power really to be proved by this kind of spectacle?
Such problems have vexed Jewish commenters through the ages.
But I would like to focus on yet another startling revelation about our ancestors in Egypt. We have just read that God speaks to Moses and instructs him to bring the good news to the Israelites, the good news that God has not forgotten them, that He will deliver them from Egyptian bondage, that He will take them to be His own people, that he will bring them to the land which He promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exod. 6:6-8).
We might expect that when Moses repeated these words to the enslaved Israelites, they would have been received with jubilation—“hurray!!”—that the prospect of an end to the dark night of their oppression would have uplifted their spirits and caused them to flock around Moses with gratitude and enthusiasm. Instead, we read, “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to him, mi-kotser ru’ah ume-avodah kashah, in the older translation, “for impatience of spirit crushed by cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9), in the modern translation, which seems better to me, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.
Surely this seems to be somewhat paradoxical. We would expect that the greater the suffering of a people, the more eager they would be to hear that they could soon be free. Yet this verse implies the opposite: that the oppression of the Israelites was such that they could no longer respond enthusiastically to the message of freedom.
Explaining this surprising reaction, some of the rabbis said that the Israelites were simply afraid that Moses would get them into deeper trouble. At the end of last week’s parashah, Moses and Aaron first appeared before Pharaoh with the famous words, “Let my people go, that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh’s reaction? He increased the toil of the Hebrew slaves (Exod. 5:6-9), making them gather by themselves the raw material needed for their building work. And so when Moses appeared again to the people with the word of God, they turned away from him, for fear that things would get even worse. They were apparently afraid that any talk of freedom would only make the authorities angrier and make their own lot more difficult. They were afraid to think of freedom because of the chance that the chance might fail, and they would be painfully disappointed.
Another interpretation suggests that while the Israelites were in Egypt, they became accustomed to the Egyptian manner of idol worship. When Moses came and spoke of a God who could not be seen, the people w ere too closely tied to their idolatrous practices to take him seriously. It was the powerful appeal of paganism that led to their indifference. Idols and images are immediate and obvious; they can be seen and felt; they appeal to all the senses; they constantly reassure the worshipper that the gods are near. By contrast, the God of which Moses spoke was invisible and mysterious, difficult to comprehend. In this reading, not the physical oppression but the spiritual slavery of paganism made the Israelites unwilling to respond to the message of Moses. Accustomed to the familiar religion of the Egyptians they were afraid to bind up their destiny with a God they could not see.
A third interpretation is in some ways the most appealing of all. It is possible for a people to be so enslaved that they no longer want to be free. Despite the horrors of slavery, one can argue that it affords certain securities. The slave knows that if he does what he is required to do, everything will be provided for him. He does not need to worry about his next meal, he does not need to make difficult and soul-searching decision, he does not need to face unfamiliar and challenging new situations. To such a person the prospect of freedom, of suddenly being faced with choices and uncertainty, decisions and unfamiliar new circumstances, may well be terrifying. The Israelites in Egypt had been oppressed to the point where they had developed a slave mentality, where they were afraid to be free.
This frame of mind, which the psychologist Erich Fromm called the “fear of freedom,” is known from other examples. There are prisoners whose sentence ends after decades of incarceration, who simply cannot manage the idea of living in a free society. Many Jews in the 19th century were opposed to the process of political emancipation; they preferred to live in their ghettos, under the oppression of the Russian tsars, rather than to face the challenge of free citizenship in the modern state. In some sense, all of us are slaves: to convention to habit to our familiar environment, reluctant or unwilling to make the break from the past that is sometimes a necessary expression of true freedom.
There are some members of every religion who subject themselves to the entire body of beliefs and observances, not because they understand them and find them truly meaningful, not because they really believe that God demands this of them in every detail, but because they are told through authority that this is the way it has to be done. Such people find their way of life comfortable and familiar. They are afraid to allow themselves the freedom and the responsibility for making their own informed choices about what to believe and what to observe, so they accept a doctrinaire, authoritarian tradition.
On the other extreme, those who automatically reject all religious belief and observances may themselves be no more free. They seem to feel a compulsion to attack every expression of religious commitment, to denigrate every observance of ritual, to ridicule not only the words but the very concept of prayer. The possibility that there may be some reality beyond the capacity of their senses to perceive or their minds to comprehend, some beauty in acts that bind generations of continuity, seems to be frightening. They claim to have found freedom—you know the motto: “There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your lives”—but militant secularism can itself be a straitjacket.
True freedom means accepting the responsibility to evaluate and choose for ourselves what teachings and values we will make into the cornerstone of our lives. This is the freedom that we in Progressive Judaism prize so highly. Those who blindly accept all, or automatically reject all, may be afraid to accept the challenges and the wonders of freedom.
Wherever we look we find people who prefer to remain enslaved to familiarity, convention, habit and role, people unwilling to take a risk, to be different, to choose and decide for themselves. Our parashah warns us that it is all too easy to fall into this trap. But it also tells us that we must be ready to abandon the security of slavery in Egypt for the challenge of freedom in the wilderness. That is the path that leads to the fulfillment of the Promised Land.