Parshat Bo: Self-Centeredness or Compassion?

the great sphinx
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Sometimes, sadly, we wait until it “hits home” to change our behavior. This was a key insight I taught in my Davar Torah “Bo” this weekend at shul, an insight my rabbi praised and suggested I share more widely.

In Parsha Bo, Moses comes to Pharaoh with the warning that Plagues 8, 9 and 10 were coming unless freedom from slavery was decreed first. Last week, in JewishSacredAging.com, Rabbi Address wrote brilliantly that Plague Number Nine, darkness, has perhaps transformed into a dismal, emotional darkness that is a major backdrop to the current Omicron Surge of the COVID pandemic. It has affected our moods. It has affected our ability to see or care beyond ourselves. It is dark in many ways.

Perhaps that type of darkness, which Rabbi Address suggested, and which did not change Pharaoh’s hardened heart, was the perfect prelude to Plague Ten, which did change Pharaoh’s heart. Plague Ten was the slaying of the first-born Egyptians. To be more technically correct, it was the beginning of the slaying of the first-born Egyptians. How do we know it was only the beginning?  It is because Pharaoh, himself, was a first-born Egyptian. Pharaoh saw the lava flowing downhill and Pharaoh knew he had the power to stop it or he, himself, would be directly affected by the tenth plague.

Is it not sad, perhaps, that in a culture theoretically based on the concept of tzedakah, hitting home is still a more powerful motivator than reaching out?  How similar is this analogy to Mordecai’s warning to Esther that just because you are in the palace, do not think you will be spared? 

The late German Lutheran minister Rev. Martin Niemöller wrote a poem, after a 1934 meeting with Hitler, where the poem begins with, “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out…” and ends with, “Then they came for me —and there was no one left to speak for me.”  In the Parsha, there was almost no one left to speak for Pharaoh, not even Pharaoh himself.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, CE. As a statistician by my first training, I wish I had the supportive data, but I do have the speculation:  how often do you read in obituaries from all cultures in America a recommendation from the mourners to donate to a charity related to the disease to which the deceased succumbed, when they had not given that charity more attention before the affliction hit home?

However, I do have analogous supportive data from Pew, that great source of social science research, released just a few months ago, on November 23, 2021. The Pew Study of Americans was titled, “Suffering and G-D’s Role.” A key question posed in the survey was, “How do you often feel when you see or hear news about terrible things happening to people?” There were options to choose from in the response set. Multiple selections were permitted. Allowing multiple selections revealed something very profound. When data reveals something profound, we like to say that the insight was hiding in plain sight, or reinforcing what we already felt in our kishkes, to put a Jewish spin on the research.

Look at the early ten-point gap between the first two choices. When Americans see bad things happening to other people, first, 71% say they are thankful for the good things in their own lives. Then, nine percentage points below that, at 62%, Americans report sadness for those who are suffering. Sometimes, actually here more often, self-centeredness is preferred over compassion.

Perhaps we need these modern reminders of the need to walk the talk of our ethical foundation of tzedakah. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught,  “The exodus from Egypt occurs in every being, in every era, in every day.” 

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