Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Parashat Bo 2013

Parashat Bo
Cantor Gershon Silins

18 January 2013

In Parashat Bo we continue with the dramatic recounting of the·confrontation between Moses, who represents and speaks for God, and·Pharaoh. "Go to Pharaoh," God tells Moses, "for I have hardened his·heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs·in the midst of them; and that you may recount in the hearing of your·sons and of your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and·how I displayed my signs among them -- in order that you may know that·I am the Lord." It seems that Pharaoh behaves the way he does because·God has hardened his heart, that is, made him so impenetrable to God's·demands, to mercy, to kindness, and even to self-preservation. For·this, Pharaoh is punished, his people are punished, and in the end all·that he values is destroyed.

·The triumph of our people, our leader, and our God, over this·intransigent ruler, is something to celebrate; indeed, it is the·success of our liberation from Egypt that has united and inspired our·people from that time to this very day. And yet, there is something·extremely disquieting here. A theme in this story which we see here is·the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, which seems to drive all these·events. One question that arises, and arose for our sages as well, is·this: who hardened Pharaoh's heart, and can Pharaoh be held·responsible for actions over which he seems to have no control? In the·Hertz commentary we read, "for God to make it impossible for a man to·obey him, and then punish him for his disobedience, would both unjust·and contrary to the fundamental Jewish belief in freedom of the will."

Hertz's answer is that when the divine command came to Pharaoh to set·the slaves free, and he refused, each repetition of his obstinacy made·it less likely that he would eventually relent. On this reading, God·hardened Pharaoh's heart by letting him fall into the sin and error·that were already native to him and to the circumstances that led him·to this confrontation. His punishment is not for a sin committed at·God's command, but for a sin committed as a consequence of his nature·over which he initially had control, but made choices that took away·his ability to respond any other way.

But it is not just Pharaoh who is intransigent. For not only has·Pharaoh's heart been hardened, so has God's. By this point, God has·stopped negotiating with Pharaoh. Whatever it was that hardened·Pharaoh's heart, it is now clear that God will not let him relent,·because the breakdown in negotiations suits God's purpose, which is·principally to show God's power to Moses and his people. Indeed, by·this point in our story, Pharaoh has begun to demonstrate a softening·in his position. "Go, serve The Lord your God; but who are they that·shall go?" It is as if Pharaoh is now trying to reach a face-saving·outcome which will preserve his power and authority. But God and Moses·will have none of it. And the story comes to the conclusion we know --·the remaining plagues take the fight out of Pharaoh (for a brief time·until his final defeat) and the Children of Israel are released.

It might be going to far to suggest that Moses should have negotiated·with Pharaoh, softened his position and found a way to give his people·some measure of independence without leaving Egypt; that would be a·modern solution, a negotiation where both parties benefit even though·neither gets exactly what he wants, and we should be ready to do this·when it is right.

But the liberation of the Children of Israel from slavery was not,·finally, something that could be compromised or negotiated away. In a·review in The New Republic of the new film "Lincoln," Sean Wilentz·tells of Abraham Lincoln's efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to·the US Constitution. Lincoln and his ally, Thaddeus Stevens. They used·every weapon in the politician's arsenal to pass this amendment, which·ended slavery in the United States. As Stevens said of their efforts,·"The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by·corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." Because·in the fight to end slavery, they could not compromise and they could·not negotiate away any of it; slavery had to end. So too in our story.·God wants to do more than just show power; the liberation of the·Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt is not something that can·fixed by a partial solution.·

We must indeed try to find opportunities to negotiate and compromise,·but we must also remember that there are moral demands that cannot be·compromised. What is most difficult is to know the difference.