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Responsibility and the Hardened Heart

“How do you know when you have really grown up?” I remember being asked that question one evening by one of my 10th grade Confirmation students, and how it produced one of the most thoughtful and reflective discussions we had that entire year.

Most of the students (all 15-year-olds), one after the other, expressed in the strongest of language their desire to grow up and their eagerness to be independent of their parents, to be treated “like adults,” to be trusted by their parents and shown respect by the adults with whom they came in contact at school or in the community. But there were also a few students who admitted that the thought of growing up and being on their own, having to take care of themselves, make their own decisions, and earn a living was terrifying. They were perfectly happy to delay the inevitable as long as possible, to live at home and be taken care of by their parents.

But the most intense moments in the discussion came when I shared my own definition of when you know that you have finally grown up. I told them that growing up had very little to do with arriving at a particular age or stage of life, but was fundamentally about achieving emotional maturity. And you know that someone has become emotionally mature the minute he or she first accepts total responsibility for his or her actions. I suggested that as long as you continue to find reasons beyond yourself for your behavior, as long as you continue to look for excuses in external experiences for the things that you do in life, you haven’t achieved real maturity.

In fact, one of the most serious ethical challenges of our age is the pervasive denial of personal responsibility. Our society seems increasingly filled with individuals who are eager to fix blame for their own actions on almost anyone or anything else – their parents, their peers, their teachers, their income level, their race, their religious upbringing, or any number of “special circumstances” that have “made them” the way they are.

The fundamental problem with such reasoning: if you can find any other person who has the same or similar life experiences but has made behavioral choices different from yours, it invalidates the excuses your use for your own behavior.

And so we come to this week’s Torah portion, Bo, which contains one of the most troubling ethical dilemmas of the entire Torah. It is an issue that hinges entirely on the question of personal responsibility and its relation to moral culpability. The issue that has troubled generation after generation of Torah readers: Jewish tradition’s condemnation of Pharaoh for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves go free until Moses and God inflict ten disastrous plagues upon the Egyptians, ending with the death of all those innocent Egyptian firstborn.

The moral dilemma rests on the assertion by God throughout the drama, that it is God who will consistently harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh will refuse to heed the pleas of Moses to “Let my people go.” If it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, why don’t we hold God and not Pharaoh responsible for Pharaoh’s refusal, the continued Hebrew suffering and the need for the ultimate destruction of all those innocent Egyptians?

Even though the rabbis of the Talmud, Midrash and all subsequent Jewish history go to great lengths to explain away God’s culpability in this story, I believe the ultimate answer is found in the opening words of this week’s portion. “Then God said to Moses, ‘Go 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, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am God.’” (Ex.10:1-2)

That’s the story, and that’s the reason. The entire tale is a grandiose, spiritual, mythic foundation of the relationship between the Jewish people and God for all time. “…that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons…in order that you may know that I am God.” It is designed as an unforgettable, dramatic lesson in the power of God, who is the real power in the universe, to overcome any and all human God-pretenders such as Pharaoh (who after all was believed to be a god by his people).

But the rabbis are not content to simply say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God could make a point that we would never forget throughout all succeeding generations (even though that’s what happened), because within the moral guidelines of their ethical universe, they needed Pharaoh to be responsible for his own behavior.

And so they taught an important and compelling lesson about human nature. They established a principle of human behavior with the simple statement, “Ha-adam nifal l’fee pe-ulo-tav,” “A human being is formed according to his/her own actions.”

The wisdom they brought to this dilemma contains a truism for us all – that each of ultimately has free will to choose our own path, and the decisions we make, the actions we take inevitably lead us step by step to become one kind of person or another. Every choice has consequences, even if taken alone they seem so inconsequential. Just think of the simple steps one takes that can ultimately lead to addictions of all kinds, and you will understand what the rabbis meant.

They believed that all God had to do to “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, was simply allow him to continue making the choices he was already making, taking the path he was already taking and the inevitable result was a cruel heart indifferent to human suffering.

The real lesson for us is to remember each day that everything we do counts. Every decision matters. Every choice has an affect on us, on future choices, on our self-image, and on the kind of person we ultimately turn out to be.

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