04 January 2014

Changing Hearts and Minds

Saturday a.m. Drash
Parshat Bo

It all depends on how you say it.

On two of the different occasions when God deploys Moses to speak to Pharaoh regarding the right of Israel to worship as they please, two different verbs are used to tell Moses to begin his diplomatic mission.

"Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.  And say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, "Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness."  But you have paid no heed until now.' " (Exodus 7:15-16)

Here the diplomatic charge is the politics of confrontation.  Direct.  Taunting, like on a football field or a boxing ring.  The specter of violence hangs over the exchange.  Pharaoh heading out to the river, facing the rebel leader, who is about to turn the river into blood.

The Hebrew command suggests a kind of distancing, if you will.  לך אל פרעה--Go (away) to Pharaoh--representing the punishing impulse.  There is a the rebel demand; the river turns to blood; and briefly, for a time, Pharaoh is made to relent.  But of course the resentment, the anger, the need for revenge over the humiliation of loss, continues.

Levi Isaac of Berditchev suggests that in this instance, God is clear in the purpose of the bloody river plaguing the Nile:  to punish the wicked Pharaoh.   And the cold-hearted Pharaoh responded by hardening his own heart, even to his own people's suffering, and onward went the plagues.  In the confrontation of one to one, there is no winner.  Only more violence.

In this week's Torah portion, however, different language is used.  "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go (toward) to Pharaoh.  For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these My signs among them."  (Exodus 10:1) The force of the Hebrew here בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו--hints at a more nuanced approach to the negotiation where Levi Isaac says the tactic is meant to "change the hearts of the ministers and advisors to the good."

In the distancing of "go" negotiate, there is the direct threat of violence.  In the drawing near of "go toward," there is the attempt to "give honor" (strengthen) the hearts of the enemy in order to draw them near and change their mind.

Levi Isaac reminds us of the King Ahashverus from the Purim story in the Book of Esther, who changes Haman's decree against the Jews and instead punishes the truly evil person in the story, the wildly conspiratorial and anti-Semitic Haman.  What changed this "course of history?"  Diplomacy, persuasion, the concerted effort to "harden/give honor to" the hearts of the advisors and ministers in the greater court of Ahashverus/Pharaoh.

We're reading metaphorically here, folks.  No illusions about what really happened, in either ancient Egypt or Persia.

But a humbling reminder that persuasion deserves a chance to succeed in negotiations for liberation in equal measure to the last resort of violence.

One thinks of today's battles--between Democrats and Republicans and Tea Party activists; between Israelis and Palestinians; between the the rich and the poor in the current metaphor-in-vogue of the "Tale of Two Cities"--and the choices we face in emerging whole, each side honored, in its quest for dignity and freedom.

Levi Isaac reminds us that in reading these contrasting views, we're closer right now to Purim--where persuasion worked--than to the ultimate punishing plagues of the Exodus story.

A worthy reminder and perhaps a hope against hope but nevertheless a hope:  that the hands of diplomacy and persuasion will win the day over more bombs--real and rhetorical--that are thrown as a last resort in the spirit of hopelessness.

Here's to honor.  And changing hearts and minds for a better world.  Shabbat Shalom.

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