There is also much discussion as to the purpose of the plagues. Nowhere do we read that their purpose is to punish the Egyptians. It is instead to motivate the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free. In some commentaries we read that their purpose is to demonstrate God’s power to the Israelites. But I don’t very much like this explanation. Why would God want other human beings to suffer so that Israel can learn of God’s might?
Regardless our tradition has tempered the force of the plagues by insisting that whenever we retell them we lesson our joy. In other words at every seder we remove a drop of wine from our kiddush cups so as to remove a measure of happiness. In the most famous of retellings the midrash recounts how the angels sang and danced when the Egyptians were later drowned in the sea. God silences their shouting of halleluyah with the exhortation: “My children are drowning! How dare you sing praises!”
As I shared in my weekly email, the telling of the plagues is punctuated by the phrase, “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh wavers back and forth between letting the people go and hardening his heart and not allowing the Israelites to go free. I am not going to here explore the question of why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart but instead the meaning of this phrase. What does it mean to harden our hearts? To what do we harden our hearts?
The most obvious answer is that sometimes we harden our hearts to others. We do so to strangers and even to those we love. Everyone stands guilty of doing this. Sometimes we become so wrapped up in our own lives and our own concerns that we forget others. We harden our hearts to their needs, to their pains and even to their joys. Sometimes we are unable to celebrate others joys and successes because we are so hardened by our own failings and trials.
I think especially of the homeless who we often confront living in New York. Do we walk by them in Times Square? Do we step over them as we rush to catch the subway? I remember once when we learned from a homeless person. He was actually no longer homeless and working for an advocacy group. When we asked him, “What was the worst part about being homeless?” he answered, “To be ignored.” He could deal with the physical challenges of being hungry and even the cold, but the emotional was far more difficult. People used to walk by him as if he was invisible, as if he did not exist. This was the most difficult. And this is hardening of the heart.
And what is the cause of this hardening of our hearts? It can be ideology. It can even be our beliefs. Sometimes we become convinced of the rightness of our own opinions and then the world becomes invisible. We only see ourselves and our ideas. We fail to see others. And so do we choose to be right and sometimes alone, or to be surrounded by others and then often our community?
Lately I have been thinking of an even more insidious hardening of our hearts. It is the hardening of our hearts about the future. We read article after article about the diminishing of America. We read of states running out of money, of services being cut, of budgets being squeezed. And our hearts have therefore become hardened. We have become convinced that we will never be what we once were. It is the decline of America.
But to be Jewish is to never lose hope in the future. Think of the seder and its retelling of the plagues. Even more importantly think of the seder and the singing of Next Year in Jerusalem. Think of how many thousands of years we sang this song when there was not even a glimmer of a State of Israel. Think of Elijah and his promise of bringing the messiah. The messianic dream means that the future will be better than the present. As Jews we must never lose sight of this dream.
When we allow our hearts to become hardened we become like Pharaoh. We can like Pharaoh harden our hearts to others and harden our hearts to the future. Lately I have been thinking that the latter might indeed be the more dangerous of the two. To believe that the future cannot be better creeps into our hearts and coarsens our souls.
Our tradition reminds us each and every Saturday evening when we sing to Elijah that the future can be better, that the future will be better. We must never allow ideology to harden our hearts to others! We must never allow circumstance to harden our hearts to the future!