Expose Yourself to Different Viewpoints
One of my recent articles was intentionally controversial. The aim was to point out that people rarely seem capable of hearing, let alone absorbing, another point of view. We seem conditioned to listen to what we want to hear. But why do we find it so hard to hear another point of view?
Reading the relevant chapters of the Torah these weeks, explains a great deal about how humans think.
The background is Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go. Looked at from his point of view, it would not have made any sense at all. He was the absolute ruler of the most powerful, and technologically advanced, empire of his day. Why on earth would he pay any attention to two apparent nobodies, one a slave and the other a herdsman? All the more so since freeing the slaves would damage Egypt’s commercial and financial interests.
The Torah uses three different words to describe God saying he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. The first word that comes in Chapter 7.1, is KaSHA אקשה. Literally, it means something hard. And it comes in the phrase. “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” The next word in Chapter 7.13, is HaZaK אחזק, “And the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened (fortified).” The third word is in Chapter 8.11, and in this week’s reading Chapter 10.1 KaVdD, הכבדתי — heavy, “I made his heart heavy (or weighed down).”
Each of these words has different uses or meanings. But they all have meanings that can convey rising up and being lighter and better, or sinking and being worse.
When used here, they all mean that this man is not going to change his mind. But the reason he will not change his mind is not that he has no choice. It is because of his own stubbornness. His hard heart prevents him from seeing another point of view. He believes he is right, regardless, and is not going to change his mind.
So how do you deal with such a situation? If you cannot change his mind initially, you set about slowly undermining all the certainties that have led to the conviction of being all-powerful. First, you undermine the advisors and inner circle and show their limitations. Then you attack their economy and the source of their wealth and communications — from the water to land, from livestock and humans, from airborne disasters to climatic catastrophe and the eclipse of light, everything points to human limitations. There is so much that we do not control.
This whole narrative carries with it a message for our times, too. One of the biggest problems I have had with religious authorities is how they think that they are absolutely right and must not waver or show weakness, for fear that it will undermine their positions, and weaken their authority and the religion they represent. Saddest of all, they are worried about themselves and what others might think of them. This leads them to be blinded to unpredictable catastrophes or to changing circumstances.
It also results, much more commonly, in them putting their personal egos and ambitions above the needs of ordinary, and particularly vulnerable, human beings. I can’t begin to tell you how disgusted I am at instances of Hasidic rabbis holding weddings for thousands, and encouraging mass travel to these crowded events, without regard for the COVID-19 situation — or else relying on a divine miracle.
And nothing to my mind illustrates the stubborn, hard, and heavy heart as much as a kind of politics where one side is absolutely right, and the other side is absolutely wrong. This is what causes witch hunts, inquisitions, crusades, and heaps more evil on top of what came before. We have too many Pharaohs in our societies and too few examples taking after Moses.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.