Why is the Haggadah silent regarding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, while in Exodus it is mentioned along with every plague and elsewhere – twenty times in all? Why are the plagues visited upon the entire Egyptian people, when it seems that only Pharaoh or a minority of the Egyptians are responsible for the oppression of the Hebrews? Do we embrace collective punishment? What can we learn about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart for our own lives?
The events in the Middle East over the last several months shatter our preconceptions. At least temporarily, our paradigm of the good children of Israel versus the evil Egyptians from the Exodus story has receded and revealed a much more complex and nuanced reality of the Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans, Yemenis, Iranians, Jordanians, Syrians and other Arabic and Islamic peoples fighting often peacefully but sometimes violently for freedom against their own Pharaohs. For once, the focus has shifted from the real and imagined struggle between Israel and Palestine to the oppression of Arabic and Islamic people by their own rulers. We laud Nachshon in our midrash for having the faith and courage to be the first to wade into the Red Sea. Yet equally brave and worthy of praise are the Tunisian street vendor who set himself aflame in response to the constant theft of his wares by the police, and the Libyan woman who burst into the hotel filled with international journalists to report her gang rape by Libyan soldiers. Like the Arabic and Islamic people of that region, we seek not the illusion of peace, but peace itself. Not the foreign minister of Libya promising a cease fire while Gadhafi’s troops continue to bomb Misrata, but a lasting end to attacks on civilians and the opportunity for genuine democracy.
Can we transcend our own Passover story? Can we go beyond stereotypes of good and evil to an awareness of the reality before us? Can we discern the difference between genuine Pharaohs in the world, and those we create or strengthen by hardening our own hearts? Can we understand the distinction between the plagues over which we have little or no control, and those over which we can have a significant influence?
Let us sit. Find a comfortable position, back erect, but not rigid, hands resting gently in your lap. Breath in. Feel the breadth first in your nostrils, then in your chest, then in your stomach. Breath out. Allow the breadth to rise from your stomach, chest, and nostrils. Find your own rhythm breathing in and out. Continuing your breathing, when you are ready to begin allow yourself to feel a place in your heart that is hardened How does having this hardened place in your heart narrow your choices or keep you in Mitzraim. Allow yourself to feel the pain and sadness of being constricted and enslaved to this hardness. Knowing that healing begins with the open and compassionate recognition of these difficult parts of ourselves, surround the pain and suffering with warmth and acceptance. Now invite these healing qualities to you’re your heart. Say quietly to yourself – May I be blessed with:
Continue to repeat these phrases. Gradually, include in your blessings all other who seek to free their hearts.
On this Pesach, may we each be blessed to soften and act with wise hearts, to live compassionately with those plagues that are real, to let go of those that are not, and to work toward a better world in which adonai echad ushmo echad - God is one and God’s name is one.