Monday, December 30, 2013

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
3 Shevat 5774 / Jan. 3 - 4, 2014

Pharaoh's Flawed Philosophy of Forgiveness—A Story of Stubbornness
by Jack Cohen, Alumni Moishe House East Bay, CA

Who's younger brother is Pharaoh? Because only a younger brother gets slapped around 7 times and comes back for more, to a greater power, still refusing to admit he's wrong. In this epic story of stubbornness, Parshat Bo relates the 8th, 9th, and the grand finale, go-for-the-(g)oldest 10th plague, along with the first celebration of and instructions for Passover. The parsha begins curiously, with G?d taking responsibility for this stubbornness, for a very specific purpose: to make G?d's existence known and deplore an immoral way of relating to each other. I want to explore this through examining Pharaoh's dubious attempts at forgiveness along the way.

What's odd about Pharaoh's pattern, bearing uncanny resemblance to many a childhood fight between myself and my older or younger brother, is the quick admission each time, as soon as the punishments hail in, of wrong-doing and request for relief. The 8th plague, locusts, arrives, and the Torah tells us, “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened...[and they ate everything] so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt” (10:24). What happens next? Pharaoh rushes (“vaymaher”) to summon Moses and Aaron to plead guilty and beg forgiveness: “I stand guilty before the Lord your G?d and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your G?d that He but remove this death from me” (10:17). No sooner than is the plague gone, we discover, “But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (10:20). And the 9th plague, total darkness, quickly ensues.

A first lesson comes here—we cannot rush the process of real forgiveness. What does real forgiveness require? What is Pharaoh's plea missing, that he might break the cycle of plague-ry? Pharaoh seeks relief from what he is suffering, but never to recognize the immorality of his actions. Had Pharaoh read the brilliant editorial On Forgiveness in the New York Times (2011), perhaps he would have acted otherwise. Philosophy professor Charles Griswold argues therein for the bilateral nature of the ideal forgiveness process, emphasizing the necessity of at least four elements on the part of the perpetrator for real tshuvah (return, at-one-ment) to be possible. He identifies admission of responsibility, recognition of the victim's experience of the wrong-doing, feelings of remorse, and a resolve not to do it again. He has a thing for words that begin with “re”. Of these, Pharaoh might be said to have only the first, and even that is disputable. Professor Griswold argues that the purpose of “forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.”

Is it fair, however, to continue to accuse Pharaoh of immorality when after all, it is now G?d stiffening Pharaoh's heart, no longer happening of Pharaoh's own accord, as in the first five plagues? (See examples at 8:15, vayechezak, 8:29 vayachbed, 9:7 vayichbad.) I am still unsure. My only way of reconciling this is to appreciate how accurately G?d's actions here reflect our reality. Pharaoh is perpetually self-absorbed and in denial; as nice and true a claim as “it's never too late to change” may be, what is more common is that we cultivate habits of heart—virtuous or vile—and they gather momentum until they are driving on their own. It takes tshuvah and real forgiveness to really change this momentum, and G?d is unwilling to reward a feigned request for forgiveness.

This manifests from G?d's first encounter with Moses, when G?d has this all planned out, intent on Egypt's authentic and undeniable recognition of G?d's existence. Again in the first words of this week's parsha, G?d tells Moses explicitly why he's hardened Pharaoh's heart and the heart of his servants: “in order that I may display these My signs among order that you may know that I am the Lord” (10:1). Earlier takeaways help me begin to understand this. If we cannot rush real forgiveness, and in its ideal form it requires participation and understanding of both parties, then this is the role of the victim, G?d, ensuring that the Egyptians have enough time to become really aware of their wrong, and ultimately acknowledge “that I'm G?d” and you, or your idols, are not. While a more sudden awakening to this Fact might have been smoother, the story recognizes the gravity of the offense and presents an appropriately more gradual series of reminders that are unforgettable. This increases the chance of “a moral relation between self and other”; were one people to really recognize the G?dly nature of another, it would be impossible to subjugate them in the future, or treat each other in any less than the most virtuous of ways. Cultivating this happens as a course of habit—that is, of repeated actions—and so it makes sense that G?d's plan would unfold in like manner.


Post a Comment