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Beware of the Hardening Heart

This week’s portion, Bo, describes the last three plagues: locusts, darkness and the slaying of all the firstborn of Egypt. Is it conceivable that Pharaoh’s stiff-necked, self-destructive behavior, so vividly portrayed in the story of the plagues, could be interpreted in such a way as to actually have lessons for ourselves? I mean ourselves both collectively, as the Children of Israel, and individually, as, for example, yourself. Is there any interpretative move within the rabbinic tradition that would permit us to see this as applying to ourselves?

The conventional translation of the opening sentence of Bo is: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart.’”

But bo means “come.” And the word hichbad’ti traditionally translated as “hardened,” literally means “made heavy.” So a more literal translation would have God saying, “Come to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart heavy.”

Under this translation, God is saying to Moses, “Come here to where I am standing next to Pharaoh, and try to see things from his viewpoint.”

We can understand this instruction if we make use of a “proof-text” in which God is giving an analogous instruction to another prophet, this time prior to the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. In Isaiah 6:9-13, God, referring to the Children of Israel, says to Isaiah, in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation:

Go and tell this people:Hear ye indeed but understand not;And see ye indeed, but perceive not.Make the heart of this people fat,And make their ears heavy [same verb as in Exodus]And shut their eyes;Lest they, seeing with their eyes,And hearing with their ears,And understanding with their heart,Return [i.e. repent], and be healed.’Then said I: ‘Lord, how long?’And He answered:“Until […]the land become utterly waste,And the Lord have removed men far away,And the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land.”

God is in effect saying to Isaiah, “Go to the Children of Israel and warn them of the coming destruction, but their hearts will be hardened until:

The land become utterly waste — this is equivalent to the plague of locusts, as it is said, “they did eat every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees” (Exodus 10:15).

• And the Lord have removed men far away — this is equivalent to the plague of darkness, as it is said, “they saw not one another” (Exodus 10:23).

• And the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land — this is equivalent to the killing of the firstborn, as it is said, “there was not a house where there was not one dead” (Exodus 12:30).

Applying this equivalence to the opening sentence of this week’s portion, Bo, in our literal translation, we can now understand the sentence to mean that God said to Moses:

Come to Pharaoh, and look through his eyes and hear with his ears and feel the heaviness of his heart, because I will treat the Children of Israel in the same manner as I am now treating Pharaoh when they are rulers of their own state in the time of the prophets.

And what does all this have to do with us? I can only speak for myself. The year 2002 was a terrible one for all of us who identify with Israel and its people. As the terrorist bombings continued, and the Palestinian fanatics put up posters idolizing death and danced in the streets when Israeli civilians were murdered in buses and markets, and antisemitism gained respectability once more in Europe, I found my heart hardening. I found myself saying, and meaning, that while I had been sympathetic to Palestinian claims for decades, I did not have a shred of sympathy for this intifada or anyone supporting it or connected with it. I believe that Israel’s military responses to the terrorist attacks have been, with almost no exceptions, the minimum necessary. I did not dance in the street when the Israeli military assassinated terrorists, but I certainly did feel the impulse. And this is something to be very wary of, not because we should love our enemies, or turn the other cheek or be sympathetic to the sufferings of ideological and religious fanatics who hate us, but for the much more fundamental reason so vividly portrayed in Exodus in relation to Pharaoh: Hardening of the heart is self-destructive.

David Curzon is the author of five books, including “The View From Jacob’s Ladder: One Hundred Midrashim” and “Modern Poems on the Bible,” both published by the Jewish Publication Society of America.

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