"The Plague of Locusts" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"The Plague of Locusts" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

A national leader without empathy? The Torah knows all about that


Bo

Exodus 10:1-13:16

Jeremiah 46:13-46:28


“I don’t get this at all,” said the student to the rabbi of Chelm (the legendary town of fools). “Does ‘And the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him,’ literally mean that God caused the plagues, just to prove a point? And that God made Pharaoh’s heart hard, just to punish him?”

The rabbi replied: “Do you remember my favorite teaching from the Baal Shem Tov? ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption.’”

“Yes, it’s right there on your desk.”

“Very observant. Observe this: The text we are learning together is indeed Bo, Exodus 10:1 to 13:16, but you must read what came before, in Exodus 9:22-35. Moses had stretched out his rod, and then hail struck the land of Egypt, and then Pharaoh said that he had erred and begged Moses to stop the hail. When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders had ceased, he hardened his own heart and again refused to let the enslaved people go.”

The student thought for a minute and said, “When my parents force me to apologize to my little bother, what I really feel is pity for him for being small and me for getting caught. Then I forget about it.”

“Yes.”

“Like all those men who apologize after they get caught for harassing women.”

“Yes.”

“So Pharaoh didn’t mean it?”

The Chelm Rabbi smiled. “No. This is the difference between empathy and sympathy. You and Pharaoh felt sympathy, for a moment, like the emoji sad face you texted me last week when you were running late. You pressed send and disconnected.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s OK. You are still a child, but Pharaoh was an adult without the capacity for empathy. For a moment he felt pity for himself and sympathy for the people of Egypt. However, he did not share a deep connection with Egypt or feet the pain of his enslaved people. He could not remember what it felt like to suffer and so he exiled himself; he forgot and hardened his own heart.”

“So God didn’t do it?”

“The Rambam teaches that Pharaoh and his followers, of their own free will, oppressed the strangers who were in their midst and tyrannized over them with great injustice, by their own free will. The result was they lost the ability to empathize and repent.”

“How does anyone keep a feeling heart?

“We keep a compassionate heart through remembrance, and that is the secret of redemption, of making ourselves feel deeply. Even the United Nations will try again this January 27 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

“Is this a new Jewish holyday?”

“No, a date for all humanity. Back in 2005 the UN approved a resolution introduced by Israel to remember the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp. The international community wanted to remember by ‘reaffirming that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.’”

“Did all the countries of the world vote for the resolution?”

“No. The resolution also says it ‘rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or part,’ so those of hardened hearts did not vote for it.”

“Does Germany deny the Holocaust?”

“No country has exceeded Germany in acknowledging its role in the Holocaust, educating its citizens, and preserving sites.”

“Austria?”

“No.”

“Poland?”

“In recent days, slipping closer to Austria.”

“Here, in the United States?”

“Here, in Chelm, in the United States, you need to carry the fight forward, to pursue justice, keep memory, and seek redemption. We have much to atone for: slavery, racism, sexism, and worse…”

“What can be worse?”

“The plague of Forgetfulness. Remember that. Pharaoh didn’t.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is chief program officer at HaMaqom|The Place, formerly Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@hmqm.org.