By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
January 16, 2013
“Vayechezak leiv Paroh v’lo shama aleihem.” Pharaoh’s heart strengthened and he did not listen to them.
The accounts of the plagues that God was said to have punished the Egyptians with, contain some subtle additions to the stock phrase that “Vayechezak leiv Paroh v’lo shama aleihem.” Pharaoh’s heart strengthened and he did not listen to them. These nuances are beautiful literary devices that I hope that we have the opportunity to study together but for now, let us address the general motif.
Pharaoh is caught in a vicious cycle. He will not listen – his heart is hardened so he will not listen. At first, this cycle is propagated because Pharaoh’s magicians are able to duplicate the wonder. His resistance is strengthened. So he does not listen. The plagues worsen and the magicians are not able to revoke the plagues and then are themselves afflicted by boils and in their pain or embarrassment do not even show-up. Pharaoh responds with silence. In the words of Aviva Gottleib Zornberg, “Fear freezes him in a catatonic silence (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 98).” The change from ‘Pharaoh’s heart hardened or Pharaoh hardened his heart’ to ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ in the final plagues, Zornberg suggests is an attempt to describe the utter helplessness of the man to act any differently – he seems to have been seized by a devil leading him to his own destruction.
It is so distressing for us to see such a similar scenario being played out in Syria. For over a year, President Assad has refused to accept the will of a large portion of his people to live in freedom from his rule. Each act of the opposition is met with another show of force, the military acting as Assad’s magicians. Yet there can be no victory. Whilst there is no sign of either side being able to conquer the other, Assad’s grip on power does continue to wane. It is as if he has been beset by a devil, a supernatural power. This intransigence, this inability to act differently brings only wanton destruction upon his people and cities. Assad is so wrapped in one narrative that it now owns him.
I can think of a number of other international examples of a narrative entombing its creators. Yet what I would like to focus on is the struggle emblazoned on the front of the Jewish Chronicle this week, an attempt to scupper a proposed project ‘Grow: Tazmiach,’ that partners the Board of Deputies of British Jews with Oxfam. It would see young adults trained as activists to work in their local communities to alleviate food poverty.
It should be a complete no-brainer for British Jews to applaud such a project. Oxfam are offering first-rate training for young adults, potential future leaders in our communities and an opportunity for Jews to put some of their core values into practice.
What stands in its way is a group of Deputies who I am sure do represent others within the Jewish Community, who are so obdurately sticking to the notion that one cannot work with anyone who speaks a word against actions of the Israeli Government. Oxfam as an organisation has been outspoken about Israeli Government actions as it has been about any government that stands in the way of alleviating poverty. We must not be held to ransom by those whose hearts are so hardened that they cannot listen to another narrative.
I am proud that this Synagogue’s Deputy, David Simmons, will be speaking on Sunday in support of ‘Grow: Tazmiach.’ Whilst I do not believe that God will be able to do anything about the hearts that are already so hardened, I do pray that the majority will listen and hear the voice of reason.
This project of the Board of Deputies sits comfortably with Liberal Judaism’s policy of Considered Engagement. This means that our Chief Executive, Rabbi Danny Rich together with the Lay and Rabbinic Leadership of Liberal Judaism review every invitation for involvement in a project to decide on its own merits whether to participate. This does mean that we may engage with those who do not hold our views on the Middle East or indeed on many other issues.
This exposes us to other opinions and viewpoints that help us to shape our own thoughts, to grow and to make mature decisions. Supporting a Zionism or nationalism that overrides the universal right of every human being to a meal exemplifies a need to sit down and engage with others.