January 5, 2022
Tomorrow marks one year since the January 6th attack on the US Capital. What can this week’s Torah portion offer us as we remember this dark and disturbing time as a country?
In this week’s Parasha, Bo, we experience the last three of ten plagues, and we learn more about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. After each of the first five plagues, it seems that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. However, things change after the sixth plague where God steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart: “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” Ex 9:12.
What is the meaning of this change? What is the difference between creating one’s own hard heart, which implies agency and choice, and God hardening one’s heart, which signals a change in free will?
There is much commentary written on this very question. In thinking of the insurrection from one year ago, the perspective of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm is relevant:
“Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil; it hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible.”
Without an interruption in a pattern of bad behavior, indiscriminate cruelty and cold inhumanity take hold. There is a point of no return, where one is driven to do pure evil.
Revisiting the Exodus story each year forces us to contemplate the source of evil and the systems that support and propagate its expression. Pharaoh, as the villian in this text, represents the potential–and the reality–of the evil lurking in every era.
Aleinu. It is upon us to rise up to modern day Pharaohs, and to resist the forces that harden our hearts. When we see evil acts, it is our obligation to speak out and stand strong.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heshel:
“...morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”