Bo- Hardened Hearts

To the innocent bystander, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be just a bit confusing. A strike from one side, a retaliation from the other, with the media putting their own spin on each serve in this never-ending tennis match. Terrorists and murderers being released, John Kerry spending more time in the Middle East than in the United States- the list goes on and on, and during this whole three ring circus, the spectator is left wondering why everyone even bothers. Why do the Palestinian people care so much about the 82nd smallest country in the world, whose total square land makes up less than 0.02% of the surface of the Earth? Why do these supposedly displaced people, constantly fighting a battle to return to a land that was never rightfully theirs, keep on pushing when all logic would say that they should give up and settle into the other ten or fifteen Muslim countries in the Middle East? Why us? Luckily, we need to look no further than our weekly parsha to read of a nation lead by an unusually headstrong leader who ends up losing everything from his continued attempts to subjugate the Jews.

From minute one of the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, there is one constant factor, repeated at least twenty times throughout the storyline. It starts with a warning from G-d;

וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה; וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת-מוֹפְתַי, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

And I will harden Paroah’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt (שמות ז:ג)

G-d warns Moshe that despite the outward miracles that would compel any sane ruler to release the Jews, He will “harden” Paroah’s heart, so that He can send many signs and plagues against the Egyptian People. This phrase is constantly repeated throughout the story of the Exodus, after every plague, and we see at the beginning of our parsha that not only Paroah is afflicted by this:

כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ.

For I have strengthened his (Paroah’s) heart and the heart of his servants… (שמות י:א)

Many commentators learn out from this phrase that, even though it hasn’t been written before, Paroah wasn’t the only one with a serious case of chizuk lev- all of Egypt (lit. servants of Paroah) was “strengthened” by G-d so that He would multiply His signs to them.

Questions of free will aside, it is a little bit confusing that it would even be in G-d’s interest to “multiply His signs”- after all, the Jews had been in Egypt for a very long time, and it would have been more expeditious and merciful to take them out directly, instead of spending months (or, according to some, even years) showing off “signs” to the Egyptians. What could have been the reasoning for G-d hardening Paroah’s heart to show him signs, if that ended up extending the Egyptian exile?

Ramban (7:3), quoting a Midrashic teaching, answers that when G-d strengthened Paroah’s heart, it was not in forcing him to sin, but rather forcing him to make a level-headed decision despite the supernatural things happening around him. Paroah, the evil ruler of a wicked nation that enslaved the Jewish people for several generations, deserved to be punished before the lower class would be taken out. While G-d could have just sent ten plagues against Paroah in punishment, He instead may have given the ruler a few last chances to decide on his own to let the Jewish people go. G-d sent blood, frogs, boils, hail, etc, and each time He strengthened the Pharoah’s heart so that he could make an educated decision without being influenced by these plagues. Each time, Paroah continued to sin, and was punished dearly at the end, as not only did he lose his slaves, but he, along with the rest of Egypt who had also “strengthened their hearts,” lost something even more important; his firstborn. So, we see at the end that G-d, very creatively, punished the Egyptians for their mistreatment of the Jews by letting their nature play out, and giving them their long overdue just desserts.

Out of all of the nations that have persecuted the Jewish people in our almost six thousand year history, Egypt is almost unique in receiving this chizuk lev treatment. As far as I can tell, there is only one other place in Tanach, aside from the story of the Egyptian Exodus, where those words actually appear:

In Sefer Yehoshua, after finally returning the Jewish People to their promised land after a very lengthy excursion, Yehoshua sets out to remove the temporary (see Rashi on Shemot 12:2 and Bereshit 1:1 for clarification) inhabitants of the land. One of his last stops is the south of the country, which was inhabited by giants. A long and bloody war ensues, and the giants are driven out of their land. Then, the text puts in an interesting side note:

כִּי מֵאֵת ה’ הָיְתָה לְחַזֵּק אֶת-לִבָּם לִקְרַאת הַמִּלְחָמָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמַעַן הַחֲרִימָם, לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת-לָהֶם, תְּחִנָּה:  כִּי לְמַעַן הַשְׁמִידָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת-מֹשֶׁה.

For it was G-d who hardened their hearts for them to come against Israel in battle, so that they could be destroyed… as G-d commanded Moshe. (יהושע יא:כ)

Once again, we have the chizuk lev treatment, this time given by G-d against the giants of the south. It would seem that the giants should have been scared to battle the Jews, who at that point had beaten every other inhabitant of the land in ways that could only be described as supernatural. Any sane military commander would’ve backed out, gave in, or ran away. But G-d strengthened their hearts so that they would ignore this and nevertheless battle the Jews, so that the latter could accomplish their goal of retaking their promised land. Rav David Kimhi (Radak), a twelfth century biblical commentator and philosopher, clarifies:

לחזק את לבם- זה היה לשתי סבות האחת שהיה זה עונש עונם כמו בפרעה ויחזקה’ את לב פרעה והשנית כמו שאומר הטעם כי למען השמידם כאשר צוה ה’ את משה כמו שכתוב כי אתן בידכם את כל יושבי הארץ…ואמר פן יחטיאו אותך לי:

To strengthen their hearts– this was for two reasons. The first that this was to punish them for their sins, as it was written by Paroah “and G-d strengthen Paroah’s heart;” and the second for “in order to destroy them as G-d commanded Moshe,” as it says “For I have put in your hands all of the inhabitants of the land… lest they cause you to sin.” (רד”ק שם)

Radak teaches that there are two reasons that G-d intervened to ensure that the giants would go to battle- to help the Jews fulfill a divine command of removing their enemies from the land, or to prevent the giants from causing any problems to the Jews in the future. This second answer seems just a little bit unfair. It’s understandable that G-d would intervene on Paraoh’s free will to punish him for past crimes to the Jews, but is it really just to punish the giants in prevention of future crimes (Minority Report style)?

In psychology, there is a well-known theory that a person will always act according to his personal nature, and his nature will never change. “There are three things extremely hard; steel, diamonds, and to know one’s self,” Benjamin Franklin once wrote. Even if one begins to understand himself and tries to change, at the end of the day, his human nature remains his own, and as Thomas Edison famously said “What you are will show in what you do.” People like Paroah and his nation, and like the giants of Canaan are naturally violent against the Jewish People- this has been proven both in Egypt and in the desert. They will never cease to fight us until they accomplish their mission of, G-d forbid, exterminating us. When nothing more can be done, and when all other avenues have continually been exhausted, we can learn from this Radak that the best and only course of action to those whose “hearts are hardened” against us is pre-emptive, striking before we are inevitably stricken.

This teaching of the Radak, relevant as it was in biblical times and in the twelfth century, is equally relevant to us now in 2014. There are many times both on a personal level and a national level, where we face conflicts that seem to always repeat, and face enemies that are always attacking us. We can always take each individual battle one at a time- that’ll solve the small problems, but Radak teaches us that sometimes a bigger strike is necessary, to get rid of an enemy or end a conflict once and for all. There are a few extremely important applications of this in current events.

On Tuesday (31 Dec), twenty six Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons. These criminals have spilled innocent blood, murdering Jews whose only crime was following our commandment of yishuv ha’aretz. In a “good-will” gesture, the Israeli government sent them back to their homes in the settlements, Jerusalem, and Gaza. Many of these prisoners will undoubtedly go right back to planning more terrorism, and may, G-d forbid, be back in custody soon for another attack. This is their nature, and as long as they are out in the world, it will never change. G-d has truly hardened their hearts in their hatred against us. What can we do to stop them? We must “destroy them as G-d commanded.” I’m not suggesting that the Palestinian people should be wiped out, but I mean that the glorification of terrorism, and the unwarranted Jewish hatred that is all too common there- that must be destroyed for good. And, if it gets to the point where the Palestinians living on Israeli soil insist on fighting, on making a third intifada, then Yehoshua makes it very clear what we must do; we must wipe them out before they wipe us out. Sometimes offense is the best defense.

Earlier this week, rockets began to rain both in the north and south of Israel from our friendly neighboring cousins. In the past year alone, no less than fifty of these attacks were perpetrated on Israel. In most cases, Israel immediately reacted, firing back into territory to destroy the enemy bases that fired the rockets, much to the chagrin of the international community. As a matter of fact, any military strategist would say that Israel, for the past sixty six years, has only been playing defense, reacting to each individual attack but never starting an attack themselves. However, it is becoming clear that G-d has “hardened” the hearts of Israel’s neighboring countries- they clearly will not stop fighting until they accomplish their goal of destroying us, even though Israel’s short history is scattered with unnatural victories that can only be attributed to sheer dumb luck (otherwise known as divine intervention, “אצבע אלקים היא”). Our only hope of ever ending this conflict will not come from trying to make peace with those who are planning attacks on us even as they sit at the table negotiating- it will only come through going on offense, and taking the battle to them.

Rav Akerman, my rav at Machon Lev, once taught me that in the 1967 Six Day War, the strengthening of our neighbors’ hearts actually ended well for us. As the battle lines were being drawn, Israel’s prime minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to Jordan, begging them not to join a war that unfortunately seemed like it would end in a bloody carnage. But, King Hussein and his nation had already been “hardened” by G-d, and they answered Prime Minister Eshkol’s request with troops forming on another battle line against the young Jewish state. Thanks to this chizuk lev, we now have full control over the Old City of Jerusalem (and theoretically the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem). Just like with the giants in southern Canaan, G-d hardened their hearts to goad them into fighting us, so that we could beat them. Why? “למען השמידם כאשר צוה ה’ את משה- so that we could destroy them, as G-d commanded Moshe.”

There is one more unfortunate example of chizuk lev which has become less relevant in our daily lives than it should be. Jonathan Pollard, an accused Israeli spy, has been held in jail by the American government for the past 9803 (at the time of publishing) days- that’s almost 27 years, over 1400 weeks, or approximately 846,806,400 seconds. All for an espionage charge that Pollard was never convicted of (he took a plea bargain that the US Attorney General’s office used to deceive him into admitting his guilt- after which, they ended up giving him the maximum life sentence anyway). Jonathan Pollard has been one of the longest serving espionage prisoners in American history- most have been let out early for “good behavior” that falls short of how the Texas-born Jew has been acting. His health has been deteriorating, and he hasn’t been allowed to seek proper medical health because of his status. Meanwhile, thanks to the United States, over 150 prisoners, convicted of far worse crimes than Pollard, have been released from Israeli jails as a “goodwill gesture,” which Secretary of State Kerry promptly used to leverage against Israel in the so-called peace talks (http://www.timesofisrael.com/kerry-deceived-israel-over-prisoner-releases-tv-report-claims/). Much like the Palestinians’ hatred of Israel, the US government seems to have “hardened” their hearts against releasing Jonathan Pollard. While Israel’s allied status with the US, not to mention the common courtesy of reciprocating goodwill gestures, would involve the US releasing the now 60 year old prisoner, they obviously seem to be ignoring this to gain the most out of Pollard’s incarceration. This should leave us wondering if the US is truly Israel’s ally- after all, recently, all they’ve done is put pressure on the Jewish state to not assert its right of self-defense. But, I believe that in the context of the Radak in Yehoshua, this takes on a new light. Paroah, whose economic goals should’ve involved keeping the Jews happy as slaves, refused the simple request of a three day holiday because of his chizuk lev, his stubbornness. The United States also has a goal, one which President Obama and Secretary Kerry have made very clear since inauguration last year- they want to have a peace deal by the end of their terms, they will make it work. Yet, their stubborn refusal to release Pollard, especially in light of their insistence of Israel releasing many more prisoners, seems to go very much against this goal. On the one hand, they’re asking for peace- on the other, they’re making war. How can we reconcile this?

In 1967, Israel tried to avoid a fight with their enemy Jordan by trying to become allies- but, Jordan’s “heart was hardened” as a reminder to us of the importance of fighting, and because of this, we now have the Old City in our control. Now, we are also trying to avoid a fight- we’ve adopted the US as an ally, and are trying to make peace with the same monsters who murder innocent Jews and blame it on us. Perhaps the US’s insistence on incarcerating our Jewish brother should also serve as a reminder to us of who our true allies are- and if we can’t recognize it, then G-d may have to intervene and strengthen their hearts even more, until we are left with no choice but to fight. It is clear from the later prophets that no peaceful end will come without a battle, and this idea shows that if we are not ready to fight, then G-d will often force us to be ready by making our enemies and our friends alike stubbornly refuse to do the right thing.

Only through going to battle with them can we ever hope of driving our enemies out of our promised land for good and finally earn the peace which we’ve been striving for since day the beginning of time. With G-d’s help, we will see this happy day very, very soon.