Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
By Cantor Dara Rosenblatt
On a sunny day in early December I sat in a room full of faith leaders at a local Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Together, we watched a short video about the state of poverty and education in our city. This display of detailed, hard-to-hear information about our city pulled at my heartstrings. There is so much work to be done, and it felt like we were lagging behind. The other leaders around the table were also visibly moved, troubled, and wanting to take action.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:1). Exactly what this means is hard to know. Did God take hold of the ancient tyrant’s emotional life or did the Egyptian leader become so accustomed to behaving cruelly that he simply could not turn aside from his wicked ways? In any case, this hardening leads Pharaoh to continue to oppress the Israelites, despite the fact that God brings several new plagues upon the land of Egypt.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for “harden” shares the same root letters as “strengthen,” h-z-k, which appears in different forms throughout the Torah portion. For example, in Exodus 10:20, we read, “But the Lord hardened (va’yehazek) Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the Children of Israel go out. Then, in Exodus 13:16, we read, “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand (hozek yad) Adonai freed us from Egypt.”
Not only do we see the same root letters used differently, but we also see an interplay between heart and hand. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and uses a mighty hand to free the Israelites.
Importantly, there does come a moment when Pharaoh finally relents, saying to Moses and Aaron, “Get up and get out from among my people, both you, as well as the children of Israel, and go, worship the Lord as you have spoken” (12:31). Tragically, this heart-softening moment comes only after God punishes the Egyptians with the tenth plague, the death of the first born. As the Torah states, “It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal” (12:29).
I think this linguistic connection invites us to think carefully about the relationship of the acts of hardening and releasing, and of the roles of the heart and the hand. Pharaoh’s clenched heart causes him to rule with an “iron fist”; God’s outstretched hand serves to free the Israelites from bondage. Pharaoh only agrees to let the Israelites go free after his heart is broken.
Let us take this twofold lesson into our lives: Can we open our hearts to the pain and suffering of others in our towns and cities? Are we willing to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty? May we be blessed to align our hearts and hands in the pursuit of goodness, stretching ourselves to help those in need.
Cantor Dara S. Rosenblatt serves as the cantor at Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. She is a 2018 graduate of the Hebrew College School of Jewish Music’s Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership program.