I wish Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no harm. Truly.
I want him to recover from his recent heart issue. In fact, had I been in synagogue this past Shabbat morning, I would have offered a prayer for his healing.
But, Bibi’s problem is not a malfunctioning heart.
It’s a hardened heart.
No known medical procedure can cure that.
In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, He repeatedly refuses to free the Israelites.
Sometimes, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart; sometimes, Pharaoh hardens his own heart.
What does that mean — to have a hardened heart?
It’s not cholesterol.
Nowadays, we would say that someone is hard-hearted if that person is cruel, insensitive, or dispassionate — a heart of stone, if you will.
Is that what happened to Pharaoh? Was he simply being cruel?
Time for a biblical anatomy lesson.
In the Bible, various organs of the body have jobs to do.
For example, take the bowels. (Please). The bowels are the location of strong emotions.
The heart is the location of the inner life. It is the mother board, the control center, as it were. Thoughts and intellect — not emotions and feelings — emanate from the heart.
So, what did it mean for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened?
It means that God (or, sometimes Pharaoh himself) has toasted Pharaoh’s internal mother board. Pharaoh’s capacity for reflection, self-examination, and judgement of good and evil has become radically compromised.
That was Pharaoh’s problem.
That’s Bibi’s problem, as well.
By extension, it is Israel’s problem.
By even further extension, it is the problem of the Jewish people.
That is what I thought when I watched, from a distance, the march in Israel this past weekend. That is what I thought when I attended the demonstrations when I was in Jerusalem over the past few weeks.
Just check out one visual image of what is going on.
Why are Israelis protesting, and screaming out for their democracy — for the fate of Zionism itself?
It is all due to Bibi’s hardened heart, and the hardened heart of so many in this coalition. Bib might have one wanted to a king of Israel, like David. But, his monarchic model is closer to that of the pathetic and tragic Saul, or Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, whose arrogance led to the split of the kingdom.
No, actually, Israelis are in the streets because Bibi’s real role model is Pharaoh.
It is Bibi’s Pharaoh-like inability to draw conclusions from his actions or inactions; to see the consequences of his behavior; to move beyond the needs of ego and self and to see the wider picture — a picture that is so wide as to engulf an entire nation. For the whole world is watching, and the whole world is taking note.
In Exodus 10:7, as the plagues pile up, as each affliction strikes Pharaoh as something novel and unprecedented. He cannot learn from even the most recent past. Each new plague is a reset button. Pharaoh’s courtiers scream at him to let the Israelites go: “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is ruined?”
Those are the cries of frustration and fear.
And, still, Pharaoh cannot change his actions. Those actions take him to the very floor of the Red Sea — the wheels of his armies chariots locked in place, mechanical metaphors for the stuckness of the Egyptian regime.
This sounds all too familiar.
Is Israel ruined?
But, consider the cries in the streets and the rallies. Not only the omnipresent “demokratiyah!” But also, a far more heart-stopping cry: “Busha!”
Which means: shame and embarrassment.
- Protestors fill the highways and the streets.
- Reservists are refusing duty.
- Over the past few days, it has become increasingly taboo-less — from the Left and the center-right, and not from those known to be anti-Israel — to suggest that both America’s and Israel’s vital national interests might be better served if America were to withdraw aid from Israel — which comes in the form of military aid which is spent in America itself.
You have heard of life imitating art. Now we have life imitating liturgy.
As Tisha B’Av approaches — the commemoration of the destruction of the ancient Temples — many of us are feeling serious, existential dread: that we could lose the State as a democratic entity; that Israel’s friends will increasingly look askance at the Jewish state; that many American Jews will look at an Israel that no longer shares its liberal values, and will walk away from the enterprise; that Israel will no longer be an essential part of American Jewish identity; that my grandchildren will have nothing to say to the grandchildren of my Israeli friends.
Today, we are back in Rome. I hailed a cab: “Take us to the ghetto, please.”
The Jewish ghetto in Rome is beautiful and historic. It is a good place to stroll and eat a nice dinner.
The Jewish ghetto in Rome is a nice place to visit..
But, the ghetto, as a concept? You wouldn’t want to live there.
I have always loved this painting by the artist of the Holocaust, Samuel Bak — “Alone.”
Bak sees the Jewish people as a six sided island adrift in a hostile sea.
But, that was not what Israel was intended to be. No way.
The greatest danger that faces Israel today is that its leaders are callously and cynically pushing Israel back into the ghetto of nations.
That, despite the deepest fantasies of the haredim, was never supposed to be the fate of the state. Israel’s founders and her most profound leaders rejoiced at the vision of an Israel that would take its place among the nations of the world — not one that would continuously back itself into a corner, or to retreat into a suicidal Masada of public opinion.
This is what we are facing — a new Masada.
It is not too late.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.