Softening our hearts – Parashat Bo, January 15, 2016
By Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Did any of you buy a lottery ticket this week? Did you win?
Did you expect to win? Why did you buy it? Why didn’t you if you didn’t?
Whether you bought a ticket or not, I’m guessing you spent at least a few moments this week thinking what you would have done with the money had you won.
And if you did that, I’m guessing too that whatever you told yourself says a lot about your hopes, your dreams, and your values.
Did your thoughts about the lottery lead you to imagine first (or at all) a better world or just a better life for yourself?
In this week’s Torah portion Bo, God instructs Moses to bring the final 3 of the 10 plagues upon Egypt. “I have made Pharaoh’s heart and his servants’ hearts heavy in order that I can set these signs among them” so you will tell your children about this and you will know that I am God. [Exodus 10:1-2]
Every year whether with adults in Torah study and with kids and parents at Ohr Chayim, when we get to the part that says God made Pharaoh’s heart “heavy” [hikh-ba-d’ti] — that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. We always ask the same question — why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart instead of soften it? Why does God insist on sending plagues instead of blessings? Allow Egyptians to be hurt instead of just removing the Israelites? Everyone agrees, right, that God could have done this a different way, a more peaceful way, but God didn’t.
We’ll probably never know – for many of us it’s a painful and cryptic part of our story. But tonight I want to ask a slightly different question.
Have any of you ever decided to be mean to someone instead of nice? Have you ever hit someone when you were angry or yelled at them or stopped speaking to them? someone you cared about? Why did you make that choice?
Or another question – could you ever have helped someone and you chose not to?
Did you ever see someone asking for money on a street corner and you had a dollar in your pocket that you didn’t need, but you chose not to give it to them or not even to think about it later?
Or you thought about it as you saw them up ahead, but then didn’t do it? Did you ever make up stories about why you shouldn’t give them a dollar? They’ll use it for drugs or cigarettes or alcohol…we tell ourselves, something bad for them….better not to give them anything at all.
Even though we might get upset with God for hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we often don’t think much about it when we harden our own hearts. Even though we might get upset with God for bringing plagues against the Egyptians, we often don’t think very hard about the ways we contribute to plagues in our world – how we use more water than we need, for example, even though there is a drought, or how we decide to go see a movie on a Sunday afternoon instead of helping out a homeless shelter or even just writing to our local politicians to say yes, use every resource we have available to work against the growing homelessness problem we have in Los Angeles.
Really I’m not trying to make us all feel guilty – or say we shouldn’t go see movies once in awhile – heaven forfend I say that in a synagogue in the movie capital of the world of all places. I’m just saying we always have choices to make, and often the choice is between softening our heart just a little bit or hardening our heart.
So on this weekend when the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind, in this week when we were privileged to listen to the last State of the Union of President Barak Obama, in this week when we were invited to listen to yet another Republican candidates debate, or sadly to hear that Los Angeles is the city with the largest population of homeless people in the United States. I have an invitation to all of us – together as a community and each of us on our own: Instead of puzzling over why God did what God did way back when – since no one has ever figured it out for sure – let’s instead decide ourselves to do what we wish God had done – to make the choices we wish God had made. I invite us together and each of us on our own — each time we have a choice to make (for unlike Pharaoh at the end, we always have a choice – it’s up to us): a choice to help or not to help, to be mean or to be kind, to act out of anger or to try instead to repair a relationship or correct a misunderstanding, to be hard hearted or to be soft hearted, let’s choose to help, to be kind, to try to understand, let’s choose to be soft hearted.
Those choices might not always solve the problem, they might not even always help, sometimes they might make something unexpectedly harder, but at least we will have tried a gentler way, a kinder way. For who knows, if God can harden Pharaoh’s heart, perhaps it’s God too who makes each of us wish that weren’t the case. Perhaps it’s God who makes each of us hope and pray that, unlike that Pharaoh long ago, God wants us to have a soft heart, an understanding heart, a gentle heart.
I think that is what God wants, don’t you?