In Parshat Bo, we learn that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is perhaps the greatest problem in the Exodus story and still the worst of moral conundrums today. It is the root of the great societal ill that causes a breakdown in social trust and empathy. Sadly, it is becoming even more pervasive today. Researchers at the University of Michigan show that over the last few decades, the capacity for empathy in America has dropped 40 percent.
This is the break down of society, when we can no longer see one another, no longer imagine how the other feels, no longer care about how another suffers. How might we respond to such a ubiquitous phenomenon?
Here there is a disagreement between Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Both agreed that the encounter with the human face should awaken us, even startle us from our slumber.
Buber (1878-1965) believed that we dare not have relationships with other human beings in an “I-It” manner, where the other is merely instrumental for our own gain or ideology. Rather, we must have an “I-Thou” relationship. Each person has infinite dignity and is not merely a tool for our own means.
Levinas (1906-1995), the great 20th century Jewish philosopher in France, argued that we cannot relegate our ethics to abstract metaphysical principles. Rather, the encounter with the human face of the other should immediately call us to moral responsibility. We cannot look the other concretely in the face and not awaken our own humanity and thus our most basic capacity for empathy.
“I have always described the face of the neighbor as the bearer of an order, imposing upon me, with respect to the other, a gratuitous and non-transferable responsibility, as if I were chosen and unique — and in which the other were absolutely other, i.e., still incomparable, and thus unique. But the men round about me are multiple. Hence the question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’ The inevitable question of justice.” (Alterity and Transcendence, 170).
For Buber, the encounter with the other is not a moral or political encounter, but a spiritual one. In fact, extending that encounter beyond the spiritual would make that person instrumental. For Levinas, on the other hand, the face must indeed awaken a moral and political responsibility.
Are we in too much of a rush to pause and truly see each other? Our family members, our community members, members of society, strangers are longing for us to see them. But our closed heart closes our eyes.
All of us have “hardened hearts” at times. Indeed, sometimes, we must close our hearts to protect ourselves within trauma. Sometimes, we must quiet emotional intensity due to “sympathy fatigue.” For some professionals, they must keep their emotions under control. For example, a surgeon should not cry when cutting into a patient but should bracket the emotional realm of causing harm due to the knowledge that the procedure is deemed necessary. On the other hand, if we don’t cry at times, we risk losing our humanity.
Our most righteous ancestors live within us, but unfortunately Pharaoh can live within us as well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of a Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every man!”
Each day, may we continue to open our hearts and truly see one another. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, your local home for Jewish pluralistic adult learning and leadership.