D’var Torah for January 24, 2020

In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Va’Era, we get the first group of plagues against Egypt. As each horrific plague hits, Pharoah is inclined to let the people go and worship, but then his heart is hardened to their plight and he does not let them go. This year’s observation of Martin Luther King’s birthday lead me to think a great deal about the ways in which we open and harden our hearts to the plight of others. On MLK day, everyone is thinking about equity in our country, quoting the best MLK quotes, thinking about how far we have come and how much further we have to go. For many in the black community, these observances seem hollow because one day does not make up for the three-hundred sixty-four other days where hearts seem hardened to even discussing issues of race in this country. As one facebook friend put it, MLK is the day when it is “safe” to talk about race. When G-d sent the plagues, Pharoah was moved by each one, but as soon as the misery was no longer in his face, he returned to his old way of thinking. This path only leads to destruction and death for him.
Every year at many modern Passover seders, people talk about the contemporary plagues that we experience: plagues of war, famine, homelessness, crime, racism, antisemitism, sexism, climate change, and on and on. But the truth is that most of us cannot stand to think about these plagues in an every-day sense. We harden our own hearts to them, and this can only lead to a bad end for all of us. 
There are three types of words used in the Torah to describe the hardening of Pharoah’s heart – Kaveid – this root means heavy, or hard; Chazak – strong or stubborn, Kasheh – hard, difficult. I would suggest that we open our hearts by changing each of these words just a little and being inspired by three words very close in sound and spelling. Instead of having a heart that is kaveid, heavy and rigid– let us be inspired instead by kavod – honor. Let us work to earn honor in the world and to honor the legacy of freedom fighters like Moses and like Martin Luther King Jr. by trying to live up to their legacies. Instead of being chazak – strong (but in this case more like obstinate), let us be inspired by chazon – vision. And instead of being kasheh – hard, let us be inspired by the keshet – the rainbow that is all our community is, and all it has the potential to be.
Wishing you a Shabbat of vision, honor, and filled with the diversity that humanity has to share.
Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff