This week has been a challenging week. I really don’t like hearing or reading ad nauseum—really never has a Latin phrase seemed so appropriate—the vile words coming out of the president’s mouth in regard to people who are not white, not wealthy, not living in stable living conditions. I have been grateful to hear people speak up for people from Africa, Haiti, El Salvador, and remind us that Jews, as well as Irish, Italians, Poles—really almost any group of immigrants at some point or another, were not really welcome here. We were called all sorts of names…We have to accept the fact that the Electoral College, with 46% of voters, allowed a known racist to run freely through the White House, the People’s House…setting policies that weaponize his words.
None of us in this room can—I think—lay claim to the Mayflower, most of our families likely came in the 1900s—or late 1800s… Most of them came by steerage, I think, certainly most with little money. My ancestors would not have gotten into this country with a merit based system. And we were beneficiaries of chain migration…And I’m thinking mine is not the only family in this room for whom that is true…And look at us now!
The current Administration and Congress seem hell bent on denying rights our families were blessed to receive. They are hell bent on trying to end programs that helped our forebears up the ladder. Many of my high school teachers benefited (and so, hence did I) from the free education offered by CUNY. They didn’t have to carry crushing student debt.
But we know the president comes from a long history of racist behavior and words. (David Leonhardt offered a long list in the NY Times on Monday.) And this long history is not going to end until he chooses to do something about it and then actually does the work…And I am not holding my breath.
I’ve thought of all this in relation to this week’s torah portion—Bo… It’s the third portion in Exodus, and these few portions are the basis for the Passover story…we are at the last three plagues—locusts that devour everything that wasn’t already destroyed by the hail and beasts, darkness so dense you could touch it and then finally makat becorot—the killing of the first born…
Whether you believe the story as told or take it metaphorically, one of its lessons is about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart—first by Pharaoh himself and then by God.
Throughout the story, three words are used for the hardening, kasha (to make hard), khazak (to strengthen) and kaved (to make heavy, like a stone, or also to honor with someone’s weightiness and importance)… Kavod, as in God’s glory, comes from the same root…In this week’s portion we see two—khazak and kaved.
One interpretation of the plague narrative is about trying to change the heavy, oppressive practices of an entrenched government that sees itself as all-powerful.
Another is that this heart hardening is both personal and political, as Pharaoh’s behavior is both intensely personal and very political.
The personal: think about the psychological slavery we keep ourselves in: addictions, depression, fear, thought patterns we can’t or won’t stop.
In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist, explores neurology and the choices we make. He defines mindsight as “a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds,” that allows us to make connections and forge neural pathways that change the brain and how we react.
The book quite captivated me because it is akin to Mussar, the Jewish spiritual practice that teaches us to step back and explore our behavior in light of our texts and traditions.
The practices of Mussar and Mindsight share important insights. Both Jewish tradition and neuroscience show us that our nature or our genetic make-up challenge us to overcome the millennia-old habits of flight or fight, or the fear of loss that propelled the building of the golden calf when Moses was late down the mountain. Change takes time and is hard work that requires us to work consciously and mindfully every step of the way, to get past our reptilian brains. It is so easy to harden our behavior and our hearts.
All of this returns to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
Maimonides (1135-1204) had an answer to this, as told by R. David Hartman, z”l, one of the great teachers of our time: Maimonides taught that none of the biblical instances of God’s taking away someone’s freedom should be read literally. We are all on board with this concept, yes? These freedom-removing instances, he wrote in his Mishneh Torah, (Hilchot Teshuva 6), were a result of each person’s own actions. He understood, back in the 12th century, that we create habits of behavior, which, when practiced over a long enough period, obliterate the possibility of change. So the more Pharaoh hardened his heart, the harder any empathy became.
Maimonides believed that God helped those who “come to purify themselves” –built into the laws of nature, in the very essence of our nature—it is as though he could imagine what neural pathways could do. He taught that God structured our universe so that we humans would be driven to act righteously, or as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the universe is bent toward justice.” To Maimonides, God is in the very structure of human reason and nature. But we can also see the psychological wisdom of Maimonides’ teaching without having to bring God into it. Once we set out on a path, for justice or our own selfish interests, and we make ourselves at home there, we become wired to keep on that path.
Thus, Pharaoh, through his own habits, his ongoing refusal to let us go, created his own self-perpetuating reality, within the laws of nature. Pharaoh is the antithesis of freedom, the embodiment of slavery of both himself and us.
Our behavior creates the neural pathways that determine how hard we have to work to become the people we could be. We know that people who become entrenched in addiction often have to hit bottom before they see a reason to change, and that change requires activity and commitment every single day, one day at a time.
And as we sit here, on the Friday after Martin Luther King Day, I think we have so many ways to look at how we can lift the kaved, the heaviness of our hearts, the lingering heaviness that makes change so hard. This year, 52 years after the march on Washington, we are again having a conversation about race and justice, and it is fraught with powerful feelings. Because racism is woven into the structure of American culture, just as antisemitism is woven into Western civilization and misogyny is built into most human societies.
Antisemitism is as old as Jews, and the other hatreds also ancient. It’s part of the fabric of the planet. It is surely due, in large part, to hardened hearts, hearts that were taught to feel a particular way, and the effort required to change it is monumental. Because change is monumental.
On Wednesday, in Bible study, we had a fascinating discussion about the seeds of patriarchy that is being challenged in the #MeToo movement…we were reading Genesis 12:10-20, in the scene when Avram—our patriarch—and his wife Sarai (before they got their name changes) went down to Egypt because there was a famine in Canaan. Our patriarch tells his wife how beautiful she is, and therefore his life is in danger, and so they should pretend to be siblings, so that when she inevitably is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem, he will survive. We argued about whether this was Avram pimping out his wife. One person—I’ll let you guess what gender this person was—could not accept that Avram was doing this. All I could think was—have things changed at all since that time?
This week I read about an experiment done in a college class, in which male students were asked what they do to protect themselves from rape. Not a sound was heard for awhile, until one young man asked, “Why would we do that?” Then women students were asked what they do, and without losing a beat, they offered a long list: don’t go out alone at night, be careful what you wear, hold your drink next to you so no one can spike it, carry your keys in your hand, make a plan, etc. The men had never considered how much effort it was for women, whereas for the women these methods are second nature, and yet still not always effective.
That’s part of the act of mindfulness—and mindlessness. Just as most white people don’t grasp the necessity of the Talk that African American parents must have with their children, especially their sons, about what to do when they are stopped by the police, most men don’t understand the threat women endure everyday.
To overcome that hardness of heart, we can strive to achieve mindfulness, awareness, mindsight and conscious reflection—to notice our blind spots, to watch what others must endure that we don’t have to. We have our tradition, and Martin Luther King, to help us imagine a world in which black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, and we are judged by and judge by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin or the religion we practice or the tribe we were born into. We can turn the kaved of the hardened heart into the kavod that speaks of honor, if we build the neural pathways… Let us live as Dr. King urged us, and as our tradition urges us:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” (18 April 1959, Washington, DC)
May it be so.