This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins with God saying to Moses:
Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. (Exodus 10:1)
We are often concerned about what seems like manipulation of the Egyptians, the seeming removal of their free will by God. This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not the first time – in the previous portion, Pharaoh hardened his own heart five times. This hardening of his own accord, made it impossible for him to choose freely in the future. Attributed to God, it’s really his own actions that become reflexive and automatic. Rashi suggests that the reason Moses is to go to Pharaoh is to warn him against the hardening. He needs to notice it, so that he can still use his free will and not be limited by the hardness of his heart.
Last week, we learned that the Israelites would not listen to Moses’ message of liberation because of “kotzer ruach” – shortness of spirit. Their crushed spirits prevented them from absorbing the possibility of liberation.
These texts teach us that we need to care for our states of mind and heart. We speak so often of tikkun olam, repair of the world, but it’s not possible without tikkun hanefesh, repair of the soul. As Tracy Chapman sang so clearly, all that you have is your soul.
Pharaoh hardened his heart and lost the opportunity for a different outcome for his people. The Israelites’ spirits were so crushed that they were unable to help themselves. As the Talmud says, “a prisoner is unable to free themselves from bondage. (Berachot 5b). Fr. Greg Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention organization in LA) says: “Love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology.” Part of our role as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, is to be tender with each other and care for each others’ spirits so that we might contribute to the healing of each others’ brokenness on the way to the repair of the world.