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Yesterday was Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, the shabbat before Pesach—Passover. Passover is my favorite holiday—Jewish or otherwise, for so many reasons—the ritual, the food, the gatherings, the music, and not least the messages. I want to talk about spiritual aspects of the upcoming holiday—starting a week from tomorrow night.
On one hand, the holiday, coming straight out of the book of Exodus, is the Jewish redemption story. Even more than that, it is the founding story of the Jewish people. We went down to Egypt a family, with 70 people, and 400 years later, we were a people, with 600,000 men, plus the women and children. Our founding story is that we were in exile, we were slaves, and with God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, with wonders and miracles, we were freed.
Freed to be servants of God. More about this in a minute.
What other culture or people before us, after us, has a story in which their founding moment as a people was as lowly slaves? And what other people uses it expressly for empathy? We are reminded in our daily liturgy and throughout the Hebrew Bible that we must remember that God brought us out of Egypt. And therefore, we must have empathy for the stranger, for the victim, for the underdog.
And at the same time, it is an opportunity to take stock of our place in the wider world: how are other people enslaved: the children in the Ivory Coast who pick the cocoa beans that make the chocolate we love, the people working in China making our electronics, the fishermen in Asia supplying fish to our tables, the girls caught up in human trafficking all over the world.
On another hand, the story is the story of each of us, each person, and our seder reminds us that the real purpose of the retelling is to remember that each of us is a slave to something, and that we have not completed the seder until we can say that we were slaves and now we are free. We have to experience that redemption, each of us, personally.
It is a time filled with food and family, but also with the opportunity to look at our lives, look at our spirits, look deep within to our core selves and at how we might affect the world: can I make sure that my chocolate is fair trade and organic, even if it costs a few more dollars, to make sure I’m not supporting the slave trade?
We need to spend some time between now and April 10 thinking about the ways in which we might be enslaved: addiction, habits that don’t serve us, behaviors we would do better without, relationships that aren’t healthy, or the more profound idea that we might be exiled from our truest self, and only by doing concerted spiritual work, can we find our way out of our own personal Egypt.
So that’s the context I’m living in this month, as I prepare for my family seder and the one here on April 14.
So I want to go back to the idea that the Jews’ redemption was not to live it up, become doctors and lawyers and comedians, but to be servants of our God. And that brings us back to the scripture I read earlier. This is one of my favorite texts from all of Torah, of the Five Books of Moses:
Deut. 10:12 And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere YHWH your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and soul, keeping YHWH’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to YHWH your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your ancestors that YHWH was drawn in love for them, so that [God] chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples—as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. [Literally circumcise your heart] For YHWH your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.— You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This text tells us what we must do: revere, love and follow the Holy Blessed One. But, how? By opening our hearts, softening our hearts, clearing away whatever is covering our heart, so that we can be just and fair, uphold the cause of the vulnerable and befriend the stranger—could any message be more timely?
Generally speaking the Hebrew Bible—and Jewish custom—talk about circumcision in terms of baby boys at 8 days, the entry ritual into Jewish peoplehood for boys. So cutting away barriers is vital to our very concept of survival.
Therefore, cutting away the barrier to our heart, so that we can serve what is most holy, grabs your attention, doesn’t it? And it is what leads to being able to serve God with all our hearts.
A few years ago at my family seder, during the Maggid, the part when we retell the story of the Exodus itself, I had included a sentence about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart during the last five plagues. We launched into a long discussion about God taking free will from the despot, and whether, therefore, Pharaoh was off the hook and God on it for what followed. I removed the sentence the next year, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to offer the spiritual message without letting Pharaoh off the hook.
But I really wanted to put my finger on it—in part because taking responsibility is a key issue for me and spiritual growth is my goal always. So, I explored a variety of commentaries about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the exact opposite of cutting away the thickening.
Pharaoh was sorely lacking the empathy I talked about before. He thought he was as powerful as God, and all of his behavior through the targeting of the Hebrews as dangerous, our enslavement, the increasing work demands and the first five plagues prove that his heart was anything but soft and open.
But still, did God really have to go and harden Pharaoh’s heart until the end of all ten plagues? What was the point of going so far?
Jewish commentators through the ages have also struggled with these questions. I have identified a few different explanations, that may or may not satisfy you.
One argument, [put forth by Nachmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270) and Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550),] was that the hardening was an alternative to coercion from the plagues themselves, preventing Pharaoh from turning from his ways until he had a choice. If Pharaoh turned toward the good of letting us go because of his fear of the plagues, trembling at the signs and miracles, this would not have been a sincere teshuvah, or change of heart, but merely action to avoid pain and suffering. God, in this argument, fortified Pharaoh’s resistance to let his psyche survive the plagues and keep following his own original path.
But still, you might ask—why did God have to go so far? Maybe because God would stop after each plague to give Pharaoh a chance to change, but he turned back to his evil ways each time.
Another argument is like the first, that God isn’t hardening so much as strengthening, giving him the fortitude to make his own choices. R. David Schatz notes that it could have been God’s way of respecting Pharaoh’s choices, helping him follow his own path, freely chosen. This also lays the responsibility squarely on the earthly king.
The final argument—my favorite (best for last, or presenting the opinions of Shammai first)—was that heart hardening is a part of the process of living one’s life. Let’s go back to the premise that the way to slice the thickening around our hearts is to work every day to consciously and conscientiously make good choices. If that’s true, then Pharaoh, throughout his life, and through the first five plagues, had made so many bad choices that even if, on some level, he could finally fathom that he had behaved badly, he still could not change sincerely and sustain it. His course was set, clearly not doing his daily spiritual work, and he had reached the point beyond habit until he was now unable to change. David Hartman, z”l, (US and Israel, 1931-2013) wrote that
God created humans in such a way that once we set out on a course in life – noble or nefarious – we become “wired,” in a sense, to continue on that path. Based on this reading, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart so much as he created a world in which Pharaoh’s ongoing refusal to free the Hebrew slaves gave birth to a self-perpetuating reality. For this reason, Pharaoh represents the antithesis of freedom. He is the embodiment of enslavement, of both the self and the other.
Being brought up to believe you are god, or have the best words, can lead you to think that only you know how the system works, and only you can fix it. It gives you a sense of entitlement that is hard to break.
In our day, the children of the wealthy or entitled believe they can do whatever they want. For instance, UC Berkeley social scientists conducted a study to see if this were true. In the study, children were observed playing a game. The game was rigged so that one set of children won consistently. They became convinced that they were entitled to win, deserved to win, should win, even though the game was rigged. Just from playing a game. Imagine if this were your life.
I recalled an experience with a group of twelve year old students studying for their bar mitzvah. We staged a Passover play, in which one of them, one of the sweetest, kindest children I know, played God. At the community seder, after the play, he became what his mother considered “a little too full of himself.” Just 20 minutes as God and a sweet child changed, thankfully only for an hour. He was fortunate to have a mother who knew to help bring him back to earth.
And do you remember that relatively recent case in Texas in which a 16 year old drunk driver killed four people and seriously injured two more? Instead of going to jail for 10-20 years, he was given probation, because the judge bought the defense’s argument that because the child had been brought up with no limits, he was not responsible for his actions, what the defense argued was a case of “affluenza”. I am not the first to notice the irony of the judge perpetuating the parents’ errors by continuing to not hold him responsible for his actions. I kept wondering what would have happened had he been African American and/or poor, and don’t really need to wonder. We know.
But I keep thinking that somehow this modern sense of being a god, or a Master of the Universe, or a real estate businessman of inherited wealth, could benefit from some serious cutting away of the thickening around their hearts. —and even the rest of us—there is likely some cutting away we each would benefit from. And if we do the work, continue to slice away what keeps us from the softness, the willingness to feel others’ pain, that this might restore some balance in the universe.
As I prepare for our family seder next Monday night, I pray that we all keep the lessons of this bible teaching in our hearts:
That we remember to keep our hearts soft and open to serve what is good and also to befriend the stranger, because we remember what it was like when we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The entire Passover seder serves as a piece of performance art—a reenactment of our ancestors’ liberation, in which we imagine ourselves in our ancestors’ sandals, so that we are in the process of redemption ourselves. What might we have to offer people today who need liberation from war, or from slavery, or from abuse? Can we open our arms, and our homes—our very hearts—to welcome in the stranger, actually befriend them, as this text tells us is what God expects of us?
May we all work to identify where our enslavements are, where we have hardened our own hearts, where our habits prevent us from being the people we can truly be, and may we see a path across the Sea of Reeds to softness and empathy and responsibility.
Because this is what the Eternal One, Blessed Be, asks of us. May it be so.