Soften the hardened hearts of our times
Blood, frogs, lice, all the way to the death of the firstborns. Each year at our Passover seders, Jews read the 10 plagues inflicted on Egypt to punish the Egyptians and convince the Pharaoh to let our people go. We pour a little ceremonial wine from our cups, diminishing our joy, for the suffering of the Egyptians, also God's children.
Even when we read from the Torah of the parting of the sea and our song of celebration, as Jews around the world did just Saturday, we are cautioned from singing too joyously. Yes, those who drowned in pursuit of the Israelites were also children of God.
Let's look at another list of 10 plagues, the plagues of gun violence inflicted in our country: Columbine, Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown. Somehow I feel that we would need to pour out more than a drop to express the grief that consumes our country at times like these.
In the telling of the 10 plagues narrative in Exodus, in the midst of each one, Pharaoh seems sufficiently chastened until the plague is over. As soon as it ends, we learn, Pharaoh's heart has been hardened. An alternative translation from the Hebrew, which most of you will just have to accept my word for, suggests that his mind was strengthened, his resolve was strengthened.
In a peculiar twist, in the early plagues, it says that he strengthened his own mind, and in the latter ones, that God did it for him. Regardless, this strengthening of resolve, this hardening of heart, resulted in the Pharaoh reneging on his commitment to let the people go.
The issue of God strengthening the resolve of the Pharaoh calls into question divine justice. Did God impose extra punishment when it was unnecessary? Especially since all the Egyptians suffered, and not just the Pharaoh, was this fair?
Commentators suggest that it was NOT, in fact, God who did this, but that the illogic of the Pharaoh's thinking, even as his advisers tell him that Egypt is doomed, seems so far beyond reason that it could not possibly have come from the Pharaoh himself.
Even after witnessing the death of his own firstborn, the Pharaoh still pursued. Could any human being be so closed in his thinking, so focused on one singular mission, that he could fail to see the disastrous results of his thinking?
And here we find ourselves today. The slogans haven't changed at all. I am firmly convinced that most who scream about the sanctity of the Second Amendment have never read it, especially the part about a well-regulated militia.
Then again, all too many Supreme Court justices have ignored that part of the amendment as well. I am tired of hearing that guns don't kill people, people kill people. I am tired of anti-abortion activists co-opting this issue. (We can debate that issue another time.) I wonder how many who speak of the murders of unborn children invest as much energy into addressing the murders of the born.
Many of us were lulled into a false sense of complacency when the NRA remained silent for a few days after Newtown, only to find that within the week, their hearts had been hardened and it was back to business as usual. How many politicians also expressed deep concern within the first days, but then strengthened their resolve when they were given their marching orders from the NRA? When will we call an end to this plague once and for all?
In Jewish life, we sometimes expand on the actual text of the Torah, expanding the narratives in creative ways. We call this Midrash. A particular Midrash speaks of the moment of panic the Israelites experienced as they stood at the Red Sea, realizing that Pharaoh's army was closing in.
In the turmoil and uncertainty of that moment, no one was taking decisive action. Finally, with the rest of the people barely aware, one man, Nachshon, started walking into the water. He knew that returning to slavery was not the answer, and that there was only one way forward.
Slowly, people began to look in his direction as the water grew deeper and deeper on his body. Finally, the water was just under his nose. One more step would mean he would be unable to breathe. Would he take that step, or would he turn back? Nachshon stepped forward, and only at that moment did the waters of the sea part.
Where is the Nachshon of the battle on guns? To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which elected official will have the "moral grandeur and spiritual audacity," and I would add, the political will, to stand up against the gun lobby? When will we, in the words of Deuteronomy, decide that it is time to choose life?
Jack Paskoff is rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. He is also a correspondent for Lancaster Newspapers Inc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.