In the weekly Torah portions at this time of year, we read about Pharaoh’s response as his world comes crashing down. In plague after plague, Pharaoh is confronted with the reality that the status quo cannot be sustained, but he cannot bring himself to act upon it.
At each moment of calamity, when the plague is at its height and the devastation to Egypt palpable, Pharaoh relents and decides to set the Jewish people free, only to reverse course when the plague subsides. As the Torah tells us after the plague of frogs: “And Pharaoh saw that there had been a respite, and he hardened his heart and would not listen.…” (Exodus 17:11)
Time and again we are told that Pharoah’s heart is hard or heavy, but we may well ask what the nature of such a heart is. Why is this the feature the Torah uses to describe why Pharaoh is paralyzed and only driven to decision at the moment, and for the duration of crisis?
In essence, Pharaoh’s heart matches his decision-making style: it is reactive. A heavy heart is slow and tired. It is inert, a prisoner of fate, not an agent of change. Pharaoh’s heart can be awakened long enough to respond to crisis, but it easily deceives itself that the threat is temporary for it craves the status quo.
There is much we can learn from Pharaoh. The Jewish tradition has always had an uneasy relationship with the status quo. The need to progress, to improve, to be dissatisfied with how things are, is never far from Jewish texts or conversation. It is the product of our experience as a people, and inherent in the imperative that we be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus, 19:6)
As Jews, the status quo is never something exalted; it always carries with it the dangers of complacency, of shallowness, of heavy hearts. If our objective is, like Pharaoh, to maintain the status quo we are doomed to failure – a failure that is not only practical, it is also spiritual.
As a people, we have often excelled at initiative, self-empowerment and innovation. The spirit so eloquently captured in Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s book, Start Up Nation, is not only a feature of Israel’s economic success, it is a Jewish value.
And yet, in some important parts of our life as a nation, our decision-making seems increasingly to resemble Pharaoh’s. Too often a sense of deadlock has replaced the vitality and initiative that so characterized the Zionist enterprise. Sometimes it feels as though we are engaged in a holding pattern – fending off threats to the way things are, responding to events but not shaping them.
Part of this has to do with the crisis-ridden environment in which we live. We must be reactive and defensive because there are simply so many external challenges and threats to which we must respond. Part of it also stems from our system of government, in which only an emergency seems to shake things up and rouse the paralysis-inducing equilibrium of our coalition governments into action.
Our leaders – not unlike others around the world – will regularly be rewarded for responding well to an existing crisis, but taking the long-term decisions necessary to avert one or launching a ground-breaking initiative is a thankless path fraught with political peril. Too often, indecision, reactive politics, and short-term, minimalist responses are the easier and more politically prudent courses of action.
Emergencies have become for the Israeli system what defibrillators are to an arrested heart, they force a reaction but they do not sustain one – that, the heart must do on its own.
As a country, we can fall into Pharaoh’s trap by thinking that now that the Jewish people have a State of their own our core objective is to protect it. That the pioneering moment has passed. That the Zionist project has succeeded beyond expectations and our generation’s responsibility is to defend that success. If that is how we define our aspirations, we cannot rally people to action. In moments of crisis we may motivate the Jewish people to come together, but we will not attract initiative, reward new thinking or unleash sustained creativity. If Israel is about defending our past successes, not dreaming of new ones, people will look elsewhere for meaning and their hearts will become heavy.
Fear can be a powerful motivator – it was for Pharaoh. But it is not a lasting one. Eventually, one adapts. The threats become manageable, the known, even if unsatisfactory, present becomes more attractive than the unknown future.
The opposite of a hard heart is not a soft heart. It is an inspired one. It is one that does not need external crisis to catalyze action. It is driven by its own beat, by its own vision and ambitions. It rejects the status quo, not out of fear but out of hope.
Perhaps, that inspiration – that new Zionism – can be found less in defending the Israel that is, and more in bringing Jews together to imagine the Israel that could be. Perhaps it can be found in responding to the tremendous opportunity our generation has been given to create a sovereign society that reflects the best of Jewish values and excellence, and makes a unique contribution on the world stage.
A country built on a profound, almost impossible, idea is only as strong as its next great aspiration. And it demands hearts, and minds, that are not captives of the present, but engineers of the future.