THE TORAH READING FOR THIS WEEK is chock-full of action, grandly dramatic scenarios, and mitzvot. We read about the last three of the ten plagues, swarms of locusts, deep, paralyzing darkness, and the killing of the Egyptians’ first-born sons. God gives over the first mitzvah to be given to the people of Israel, which is to establish a calendar based on the monthly rebirth of the moon. We also get the mitzvot of the holy vessels: tefillin and mezuzah. And it’s in this reading that the Passover story unfolds, including the commandment to eat matzah.
THE PARSHA OPENS with God speaking to Moshe, saying the words “Bo! Come to Pharaoh” (Ex. 10:1). The Midrash teaches that Moshe foresaw that the last three plagues would be the most difficult, so God assures him by saying , “Come with Me to Pharaoh; I am right here with you.” (Otzar Chaim, Parashat Bo)
PHARAOH, IN THIS MIDRASH, IS SEEN AS “THE OTHER”. My teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold understands this verse a little differently. Imagine that God is talking to Moshe as the prophet that is within each of us, and is saying to you: “Bo! Come on in! I am waiting for you inside the heart of Pharaoh. The heart of Pharaoh is that most human place which is inside you. It is the place that has grown heavy with the weight of life’s experience. It is the place that has hardened – its outer shell cynical, and its fragile and soft inner layers made of fear and yearning and unhealed grief. Bo – come through this heart of Pharaoh if you are to find your freedom.”
IT IS REALLY TIMELY TO BE TALKING ABOUT HARDENED HEARTS RIGHT NOW. Next week is the holiday of Tu Bish’vat, the Birthday of the Trees. We celebrate the holiday with a seder where we eat fruits and nuts in a certain order, according to the kabbalistic four worlds of Action, Feeling, Thought, and Spirit. In the first world, the world of Action, we eat fruits and nuts that have a hard or inedible, protective outside shell and a soft inside. So this could include bananas, oranges, … [what else? coconut, grapefruit, pineapple,…]. And when we remove the hard outside shell we expose the tender, vulnerable inside.
AS I WAS STUDYING AND PREPARING FOR TU BISH’VAT, I remembered a story that I learned from my dear friend and colleague Rabbinic Chaplain De Herman. This is a story about a special heart.
Long, long ago, in a village far, far away, lived a community of people who possessed a very unusual and special ability. Each of them could reach inside their chest and bring out their heart for anyone to see.
One morning, an old woman was taking a walk through the village and came upon a young woman standing on a corner proudly showing off her heart. The old woman stopped to make her acquaintance.
“Good morning! What a pretty heart, so pink and shiny and smooth!”
The young woman drew in her breath, taken aback at the sight of the tired and wrinkled old crone. But, not wanting to be rude, she answered, “Yes, isn’t it beautiful!”
“It certainly is,” the old woman said. Would you like to see my heart?”
Well, the young woman was not especially interested in seeing the old woman’s heart, but not wanting to be rude, she said, “Alright.”
So the old woman proceeded to reach into her chest and pull out her heart. The young woman drew back in horror, for the sight was ghastly: bruises, stitches, wrinkles and dark patches covered the surface. Who knew what else might be lurking in there?
The young woman wasn’t especially interested in knowing more. Again, not wanting to be rude, she said, “Your heart doesn’t look anything like mine. What are all those marks?”
“Well,” the old woman began, “you see this bruise here? This only happened last week when I got on a bus to go home. There was only one seat left. A big and burly young man shoved his way past me and sat down. You can see that I am old and that it is hard for me to be on my feet for long. I felt so unseen – it just hurt my feelings to be treated like that.
“And this scab over here? Well, when we were young, my sister and I had a falling out and we didn’t speak for many years; it was so long ago that we forgot what started it. Recently we started to talk again, and some of the old hurts are healing, but it’s going to take more time.”
The young woman found herself drawn in to the old woman’s stories. Then the old woman asked, “May I touch your heart?” The young woman hesitated, taken aback by the thought. But, not wanting to be rude, she said, “Alright.”
The old woman lifted her gnarled finger and gently placed it on the young woman’s hard and shiny heart. She drew her hand back rather quickly and said honestly, “Oh! It feels rather cold!” Before the young woman could respond, the old woman asked, “Would you like to touch my heart now?”
The young woman recoiled from the invitation, but, not wanting to be rude, said, “Alright.”
So, she lifted her finger and gingerly placed it on the old woman’s soft, round heart. “Wow! She exclaimed, as a delicious and warm sensation rose up her hand and arm, spreading to all parts of her body. She had never felt anything like this before and it gave her a delicious sense of well-being, acceptance, and love.
And from that moment forth, the young woman was transformed. The hard shell of her heart had fallen off, and she vowed to live the rest of her life touching and being touched by others.
WHEN WE COME THROUGH the hardened heart of Pharaoh and enter into those soft and tender depths within, the blessing we receive is our liberation and subsequent freedom. Liberation comes first – it’s the process of becoming free, while freedom is a mode of being. We take that first step out of the narrow spaces of Mitzrayim and become conscious journeyers touched by the dream of awakening. Freedom in our tradition is not merely “freedom from”, freedom from oppression, suffering, or servitude. It is “freedom to”, freedom to be in direct relationship with whatever it is we conceive of as holy and sacred.
ONE OF THE KEYS to freedom lies in Moshe’s insistence that the whole of the people must be freed together. When Pharaoh offers freedom if the feminine and child parts are left behind in bondage, Moshe refuses, for he understands that to be free is to be whole and integrated. When Pharaoh offers freedom to the people if they will leave their animal selves behind, again Moshes refuses, knowing that without the acknowledgment of all aspects of our selves, we cannot be who we were meant to be in the world.
THOSE MOMENTS when we acknowledge the totality of who we are, both the hard outer shell and the soft inner core, are the moments when the burden is lifted, when the rigid surface softens, and the heart of freedom is revealed in all its glory. The challenge before us is to accept and honour all the parts of our self as the pre-requisite to our freedom. In answering the call of Bo, we are led onto the path of healing and wholeness.
THERE IS A STORY about some jealous angels who are asked to hide the spark of the Divine in the world.
“Let’s put it atop the highest mountain,” offers one.
“No,” says another, “The Human is very ambitious; he will find it there.”
“Well then, let’s bury it beneath the deepest sea.”
“That won’t work either,” another chimes in. “The Human is very resourceful. She will even find it there.”
After a moment’s thought the wisest angel says, “I know. Put it inside the Human heart. They will never look there.”
AND SO THE SPARK OF HOLINESS is hidden in our heart, the heart of Pharaoh, where we are kept out and in the dark by the heaviness that has accumulated, by the hardness that we thought we needed for our own protection. But if you go very still, and listen very intently, sometimes you may hear in the stillness that spark speaking to you from within and saying, “Bo! Come on in. I have been waiting for you for so very long.”
- Rabbi Shefa Gold, http://www.rabbishefagold.com/Bo.html
- A Warm Heart story as told by Rabbinic Chaplain De Herman, who learned it from Abby Weinberg at Elat Chayyim in 1995
 The Broken Man, by Moshe Meir