Facing the truth brings one closer to God

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Bo and I have to admit that I’ve never really understood it. I mean, I understand it, but I don’t get it. In my kishkes, it just doesn’t make sense. Last week, we read about the first seven plagues sent against Egypt. This week, the portion starts off with God speaking to Moses:
“Then the Eternal 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 the Eternal.’”
I really don’t get it. Why does God have to harden Pharaoh’s heart? The first seven plagues weren’t enough? Why does God need to make a mockery of the Egyptians? Couldn’t God have freed us from slavery without such extreme measures?
Or, perhaps it’s that Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go is so inconceivable that they had to make up an excuse for why he wouldn’t set them free without such extraordinary measures. For a People who don’t believe in a devil and can’t say “the devil made me do it,” perhaps we have to say God hardened his heart? Because no other explanation of Pharaoh’s behavior makes any sense at all?
Even Pharaoh’s courtiers knew the jig was up and confronted him: “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Eternal their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” “How can you be so blind?” they seem to be asking. “How can you be so indifferent to the destruction and the suffering? Can you only care if it affects you personally? Will you only care after the 10th plague when it is your child lying dead before you? How can you be so blind?”
Sometimes we blind ourselves precisely because we are not directly affected. I remember a saying: when your neighbor loses their job, it’s a recession, but when you lose your job, it’s a depression. Kal v’chomer, all the more so, if it’s someone across town whom you don’t even know who loses their job, it doesn’t mean anything at all. We shouldn’t have to be directly affected to be aware of the suffering in the world and wish to end it.
Sometimes we blind ourselves because we want to believe what we really know can’t be true. Scammers depend on our willful blindness, offering enormous, outsized gains, guaranteed, without any risk. Bernie Madoff relied on his clients’ greed to maintain his Ponzi scheme, but it all came tumbling down. If it’s too good to be true, it isn’t, no matter how much we want it to be true.
Ultimately, when we blind ourselves, we deny the truth and embrace what is false. Truth is something that is unchanging. Truth is something you can rely on. Truth is something you can believe in. And as Maimonides taught us, God is truth, Absolute Truth, the truth upon which all of reality depends. When we blind ourselves, we are denying God, which is precisely what Pharaoh did. We must do better, opening ourselves to the truth, embracing the truth, accepting God.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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