Parashah (portion) Bo – Practicing Compassion
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

We begin the year with a new midah, a new value, as our focus for the month of January: Compassion. I plunged into this week’s Torah portion with eagerness, waiting to extract from it the many teachings in compassion that would light the way for this nascent year.

To my dismay, though our holy text is replete with express teachings on compassion, they are, however, most elusive in the verses of our weekly reading. The text focuses on the ten plagues that God, inflicts upon Egypt as part of His liberation plan. Moses is sent to plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. In this week’s portion, plague after plague, after Pharaoh first reluctantly acquiesces to Moses’ latest plea, each time his heart hardens and he changes his mind, thus triggering the next disastrous plague. Time after time the ante is raised and the destruction becomes more devastating. The plagues culminate with the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons, after which Pharaoh lets the Israelites go free.

Many aspects of this story are, to say the least, problematic if we read the text on the literal level. In particular, this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart grabs our attention, as it has done for generations of scholars and rabbis before us. I like a commentary by Nachum Sarna, a modern Jewish Scholar, who writes that in Torah: “The ‘hardening of the heart’ becomes synonymous with the numbing of the soul…” At a non-literal level, therefore, the text seems to be hinting at Pharaoh’s loss of the soul-dimension of his being, and his collapse into the trappings of his ego, of his conditioned mind. He acts out the overwhelming irrational fear–the driving energy of the conditioned mind–which had caused him to enslave the Israelites in the first place. Its power over him–until the death of the firstborn–appears to be greater than the most destructive of plagues.

Without in any way excusing his behavior I began to feel compassion toward Pharaoh. With Sarna’s interpretative help, I could relate to his experience, I could see myself reflected in him when I, too, collapse into my ego and act out the fear at its center. In many ways, we all are Pharaoh. We, too, try to manipulate our reality and the people in it to comply with our rules when we harden our heart, numb our soul. Besides, we all have a Pharaoh or two in our own life. Understanding that their hurtful behavior–like ours at times–is a hardening of the heart, a collapse into the trappings of their conditioned mind, helps us open our heart to them in compassion, even when having compassion does not mean that it is safe or desirable to invite them into our lives. There are, after all, Egypts best left behind, plagues not worth revisiting.

Practicing compassion toward our outer or inner Pharaoh will support our ability to eventually get to a place where we no longer let our soul be numb, and where we are able to fully manifest the radiant Light of our unique Self. May this be our Kavvanah, our spiritual intention, for 2011.

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.