Lost from our own hearts
by Jhos Singer
We are in plague-land, my friends. Parashat Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35) focuses
almost exclusively on the first seven of the ten plagues: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Wild
Animals, Cattle Disease, Boils, and Hail. The text I studied from this week is the
Gutnick Edition Chumash, which is jam-packed with nearly two millennia worth of
commentaries. The rabbis are absolutely fixated on the aforementioned plagues.
They also spend a lot of time pondering the worst, but un-named, plague: God’s
hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
This concept is one of the most perplexing, troubling, and ugly biblical ideas in our
canon. In every generation we ask, “Why does God do this? Why generate so much
pain and drama? Why complicate an already messy situation? Why, if God is
omnipotent, does Pharaoh get such a working over, when God surely could have
facilitated the Israelite’s freedom some other way?”
The answer is obvious—this is a mirror text. It is a horrible reflection of how lost
from our own hearts we can become. It grabs us by the neck and forces us to stare at
our own lack of spiritual alignment. It is an angry and frustrated nightmare in a
cautionary tale of what happens when we place too much stock in our own
greatness, ego, and pride.
The main characters in this reading are the power brokers: Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh,
and God. No plebian voices, neither Egyptian nor Israelite are heard. And worst of
all, the deal makers don’t consider the suffering of their own people as they duke it
out for the win. And sadly, this includes God.
Remember, this whole undertaking began when God heard the anguished cries of
the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
God said, “I have clearly seen the abuse of my people that is in Egypt and I have heard
their cries, caused by their slave-drivers, for I know their pain. And I have come down
to rescue them from the hand of Egypt…” (Exodus 3:7-9)
Here, God sees, hears, and knows the pain and suffering that is rising up from us,
God’s reflection made flesh. And the response is compassion, an impulse to do
justice, to afford us freedom from suffering—a seemingly great idea that gets totally
twisted when put into practice.
And so we have the nature of this world. It is far harder to implement systems of
justice than to dream about them; it is amazingly challenging to hold onto a heart of
compassion when faced with real life abuse and abusers; it is easy to lock onto anger
when standing witness to oppression; and it is seductive to jockey for power once we meet our adversary. It is so very common that the good struggle becomes an ego
trip. Most of us want to see our tyrants fall, and fall hard. Most of us prefer an
undeniable villain to a flawed human. It’s easier and more natural to have crisp lines
between sides, hairpin turns, and decisive victories. How many of us pray for today’s
oppressors’ hearts to be softened? And how many of us indulge in revenge
That’s the real plague. And this Torah teaches it.
So, let us tackle this plague. To live in this world with a soft heart is a radical,
courageous, and continuous practice of being honest, living with ambiguity, and
embracing mess and imperfection. And it starts with how we treat ourselves, our
friends and family, and our neighbors. Let us fight for justice without demonizing
the perpetrators of injustice. Let us fight for justice without forgetting for whom we
are fighting. Let us plough up our complicated souls, massage our own tough hearts,
and keep our vision clear. Let us find new ways to freedom.