Against the Hardening of our Hearts: A Sermon In the Wake of Sainte-Foy - Parashat Bo 5777 - February 4, 2017
February 6 2017

Excerpted and Edited from Sermon Delivered on Shabbat Parashat Bo 5777 - February 4, 2017

Aboubaker Thabti, 44
Azzedine Soufiane, 57
Khaled Belkacemi, 60
Abdelkrim Hassane, 41
Ibrahima Barry, 39
Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42

The victims of Sunday’s shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.

I want for you understand the lived reality of those who genuinely fear that the simple act of joining one's community in prayer can come at the cost of one’s life. This week, if we listen, we know that those fears are felt most strongly by the North American Muslim community.

During Shaẖarit on Monday morning, Rav Baruch asked me to read over the message he and our shul president Sheldon Rotman would later send out to the membership. After breakfast, I helped craft the Toronto Board of Rabbi’s press release, while penning a message on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly – Ontario Region.

Rav Baruch and I reached out to our Muslims colleagues as well as mosques and Muslim organizations around the GTA expressing our sympathy and solidarity. On Wednesday, inspired by a human Peace Ring organized largely by members of Norway’s Muslim community at an Oslo synagogue that experienced an attack, we began preparing to stand together with worshipers during their Friday prayers at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, with whom we have a long-standing, friendly, and mutually beneficial relationship. The call to action was sent out on Thursday, and yesterday, dozens of people joined me, fellow shul members and other Beth Tzedec staff together with Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah and Rabbi Tina Grimberg of Darchei Noam accompanied by members of their communities in sharing messages of peace and solidarity. In total, at least seven mosques around Toronto had Jewish presences yesterday. I know that our presence was much appreciated. We were received with thank yous and warm hugs. The school made scores of thank you cards, so grateful were they for our mere presence.

I am too young to have experienced the Second World War, the Cold War and Vietnam. I didn’t live through the civil rights era or the FLQ October Crisis. While, in my lifetime, I certainly have seen war unfold in real time, there has always been a sense in Canada of a continuously deepening belief in multi-culturalism as the foundation for nation-making; in North America, of a live-and-let-live tolerance; and world-wide of an ever increasingly interconnected global community.

It is everyone’s hope that the attack in Sainte-Foy was a singular event, an anomaly never to be repeated. Yet, many see it as a part of a pattern of latent hatred that has become emboldened to express itself. With the vote for Brexit, the rise of the European far-right, and the election and actions of Donald Trump, some hear the death knells of liberal internationalism and see the approaching march of self-interested, inward-turning nationalism. Following the third wave in just a few weeks of bomb threats at scores of American JCCs, the sense of at-home-ness long felt by American Jews is evaporating. The heinous murder of worshipers in a house of prayer in Canada cuts into the fabric of the Canadian multi-cultural myth.

No matter what we may ultimately learn about the attacker’s motive or the mosque’s political leanings, we must always and forever denounce and take action against violence and hatred.

Following the first five plagues, Pharaoh it seems is always on the cusp of letting the Israelites go. Whether out of concern for his own well-being, the welfare of his family, or perhaps even his Israelite slaves, the Torah indicates that Pharaoh comes to recognize a shared humanity. Yet, in the words of the Torah, each time, Pharaoh ultimately hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go free, in so doing he causes ongoing suffering for his people and his slaves. In connection with plagues six through ten, however, three of which we read this morning Parashat Bo, Pharaoh does not harden his own heart. Rather, the Torah states that it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The reason God would do such a thing is of interest to generations of commentators.

The Italian rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, in a comment that I find troubling, argues that Pharaoh was prepared to let the Israelites go after the fifth plague in order to prevent further upheaval, but he did not yet recognize God. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart at the hand of God, followed necessarily by five additional plagues, according to Sforno, was intended to force Pharaoh to know God. 1

Others suggest that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because God desired further Egyptian punishment for the years of Israelite slavery. God wanted to “exact retribution from them”2, according to one midrash. Pharaoh was “made to repay”,3 in the words of another.

In what is certainly among the most provocative explanations, even if Pharaoh did want to open his heart and release the Israelites, Midrash Rabbah teaches, “When God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then God closes his heart against repentance.”4

What this midrash proposes is terrifying. At some point, we may lose our ability to repent. Those who repeatedly harden their hearts become unable to open themselves up once again.

While it is my deepest hope that the attack in Sainte-Foy is a unique event, I fear that we may be entering into a period where such attacks as well as more minor manifestations of hate and intolerance become normalized. I fear that we are entering into an era where we will be reading at first more frequently about assaults on minorities and closed-minded political policies and then as such violence becomes routine, indeed dull, that our newspapers will stop covering them altogether. Within this new normal, we will become immune to reports of hateful violence (unless of course we are its victims) and our hardened hearts will become incapable of empathy.

Such a reality is intolerable. While we have minimal control over world trends, we do have agency over our responses to the unacceptable.

Though Proverbs teaches, “He who hardens his heart falls into misfortune”,5 I want to be clear that the reason we act now isn’t because if we don’t we won’t have friends when we need them in the future. Rather, we act today because it is simply the right and the Jewish thing to do. To love the stranger as yourself, to recall that you too were once strangers in a strange land, to seek daily a redeemed world means that you have a Jewish obligation to welcome, to support and to strengthen all religious and minority groups in this great country.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The world cannot remain a vacuum. Unless we make it an altar to God, it is invaded by demons. This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent."6

We must condition ourselves to respond today, lest we become emotionally paralyzed tomorrow. Speaking up and taking action now is an antidote against a future normalization of hate.

While the Torah directs us not to harden our hearts, it also doesn’t teach us to soften them, language that may imply for some, an approach to refugee screening, for example, that wouldn’t meet a country’s legitimate security concerns. Rather, the kind of heart that our scripture seeks is like the one sought by Solomon, who asks God for a לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, “a heart that listens”7 and the one that God ultimately provides to him a “רֹחַב לֵב”, a largeness of heart.8

Whatever the future holds, let us always use our hearts to listen to those who feel and who are most vulnerable. Let us be big-hearted to those who need our love the most.

When my children and my children’s children ask, as they are instructed to do in this morning’s parashah, מה זאת,9 tell me about this, I know that I can raise my head up high and talk to them about what we together did in the face of intolerance. I am proud of the messages and the actions of our shul this week. God forbid, if future events warrant response, I hope that I can count on this community again.

1 On Exodus 4:21, s.v. Va’ani Ehazek et Libo

2 Exodus Rabbah, 5:7

3 Pesiqta Rabbati 392 (quotations is from Braude’s summary of the Piska).

4 Exodus Rabbah, 13;3 (emphasis added)

5 Proverbs 28:14

6 “No Time for Neutrality” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pg. 75

7 1 Kings 3:9

8 1 Kings 5:9

9 Exodus 13:14