When we learn to drive, the first thing we are taught – even before we learn to put the car in gear or to turn the wheel – is awareness. In driver’s ed, the motto they made us learn was: “Be a defensive driver!”
With practice and experience, you learn to be more aware. You learn to anticipate what other drivers will do, and make room for the needs of others on the road to avoid a collision.
We all get annoyed by oblivious drivers – who seem lost in their own world, oblivious to what’s going on around them. Worse are the drivers who simply seem not to care.
In the Torah portion this week, Moses and God continue to try to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians to release the Israelites from slavery. After Moses warns Pharaoh of the impending swarms of locusts, Pharaoh’s officers ask: “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7)
The word for Egypt in Hebrew – מצרים – Mitzrayim means “narrows.”
Pharaoh is more than the just the king of Egypt. Pharaoh is the king of narrowness, narrow-mindedness and selfish thinking. He is deliberately oblivious, intentionally lacking in awareness, focused only on his individual needs and wants and desires.
For Pharaoh, power and greed are all that matters. He cares nothing for the suffering of those he enslaves, he sees nothing of the misery of his own people. His callousness is rooted in the core of his being, in his hardened, uncaring, unfeeling, oblivious heart.
And it is that callousness, that selfishness, that oblivious lack of awareness that will doom his world to destruction.
Our broken world today is littered with Pharaohs – leaders whose oblivious obsession with immediate gratification of their greedy needs for power will not only cause untold pain and suffering on innumerable people, but will likely destroy the societies it is their responsibility to lead.
What God hopes will crack open that hardened spirit is pain.
On the face of it, pain is evil. It’s awful. It induces agony and suffering. Humanity is hard-wired to dispel pain as quickly as possible. Hold your hand out over a flame or touch a hot stove, and you will have no choice but to reflexively recoil in pain.
But pain can be extremely instructive and useful. Pain teaches us to notice what’s wrong, to recognize that something’s broken. A nagging stomach ache might be telling us that something else is really wrong, sending us to a hospital to get treatment for a serious issue.
Pain is also a great teacher because it helps us to understand the complexities of human experience. When someone hurts our feelings, we grow in awareness of how our insensitivity can hurt someone else. When we suffer disappointment, we grow more appreciative of each other’s disappointments. When we endure a loss, we forge a kinship with others traveling the road of grief.
But as God imposes ever more painful plagues on the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s hardened heart proves impervious to pain. Instead of feeling the suffering of the enslaved Israelites, or sharing in the suffering of his own people, Pharaoh ignores the network of needs that are growing in his land, choosing instead to focus solely and completely on himself.
What Judaism has taught the world for centuries is that holiness is discovered through awareness, by opening our hearts with curiosity, sensitivity, care and love. Holiness demands we extend ourselves beyond the boundaries of our own immediate cares and concerns to ensure that another’s needs are met. To be holy is to become aware that it is not just about me – it has to be about everyone else.
Looking around our country and our world, too many lives are being sacrificed on altars of tribal conceit, power, and immediate advantage. We need leaders who will liberate us from bonds of narrow-mindedness and selfishness by employing restraint, forbearance, generosity, collaboration, and self-sacrifice.
If we cannot cultivate the awareness of our shared humanity, if we cannot soften our hearts to share each other’s pain, if we cannot resolve to join together to solve the problems that afflict us all, then we may wake up one day from our oblivious stupor to find, like Pharaoh, that all is lost.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”