Freedom Through Compassion: Bo
Bo: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
The verses of our weekly Torah reading focuses on the ten plagues that God inflicts upon Egypt as part of His liberation plan for us. Following each Divine strike, Moses is sent to plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Plague after plague, Pharaoh first reluctantly acquiesces to Moses’ demands, only to almost immediately harden his heart and change his mind time and again, thus triggering the next disastrous Divine smiting. With each cycle the ante is raised, and the destruction becomes more devastating. The plagues culminate with the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons, after which Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Israelites go free.
Many aspects of this story are problematic, to say the least, especially if we limit our reading of the text to the literal level. In particular, the repetition of Pharaoh’s heart hardening grabs our attention. 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…” Sarna reads the story beyond its literal level and brings his readers to understand Pharaoh’s repeated sudden reversals as a further and further loss of the soul-dimension of his being and, ultimately, his complete narcissistic collapse into the trappings of his ego, of his conditioned mind. Pharaoh, lost in the walled-off prison of his own egoic rigidity, 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. This irrational fear’s power over him—until the death of the firstborn—appears to be stronger than the suffering wrought by the most devastating of plagues.
Without in any way excusing his behavior, and with Sarna’s interpretative help, I began to feel compassion toward Pharaoh. I could relate to his experience. I could see myself reflected in him when I, too, collapse into my own ego and act out the fears—be they irrational or unconscious—that dwell at its center. In many ways—though not to the same extreme—we all are Pharaoh. We all try, from time to time, to manipulate our reality and the people in it to comply with our rules, our desires, our truths. It is then that we harden our heart and numb our soul. We all, most of the time, meet life’s moments with fear; fearing we won’t get what we want, or that we’ll get what we don’t want. Knowing this, helps us hold ourselves more gently and with greater compassion.
And, we all have a Pharaoh or two in our own life as well. Understanding that their hurtful behavior—like ours at times—is also a temporary hardening of their heart, a sudden collapse into the trappings of their fearful conditioned mind, helps us open our heart to them in compassion as well. To be sure, having compassion doesn’t mean that it is safe or desirable to invite into our lives the Pharaohs that have most wounded us. There are, after all, Egypts best left behind, plagues not worth revisiting, and healthy boundaries worth maintaining. But for the mildly offending Pharaohs in our midst, the forgiveness and compassion that can spring from acknowledging the shared limitations of our human egoic behavior can become a source for healing and whole-ing in our lives.
Ultimately, practicing compassion is one of the ways we can free ourselves from of our life’s Egypt—the narrow profane space of fear, threat and control (as teacher Artie Wu defines it)—and journey toward, create and live from the vastness of our Promised Land, the Sacred Space in our life devoid of fear, threat and control and filled, instead, with love, compassion and nurturing. The question, therefore, is: how many plagues will it take for us to finally dare make the journey?