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Dvar February 1 2020: Bo

Jon and I were recently watching a very interesting docuseries on Netflix called The Devil Next Door (hang in there with me, don’t be deterred by my first sentence!) It was the story of John Demanjak, an older man, living in Cleveland who had immigrated from Ukraine after WWII. The Soviet Union gave the US government information that he was Ivan the Terrible, the nazi guard from Treblinka. The story goes on and gets quite complex going back and forth between whether he was actually Ivan or not. The series ends with a challenging interview with Demanjak’s grandson who says: “It doesn’t matter whether he was Ivan the terrible or not. He did what he had to do to survive. It was a choice for him to live or to die and he did what he had to do in order to live.” It was hard to hear, that someone’s “decision” to become a nazi was someone excusable, that there may have been a bigger reason for it other than they wanted to be a horrible person.


Every Tuesday I study the weekly Parsha with my close friend and colleague, Rabbi Mimi Ferraro. We were studying this past Tuesday and the docuseries came to my mind. In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Bo, we read of the final three plagues: locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn son. As we were studying we found ourselves getting to the line:

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְ-ה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹֽא־שִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאַרְצֽוֹ

G-d hardened Pharoah’s heart and he would not send out B’nei Yisrael from his land. Every time we approached the line we shook our heads and said why? Why would G-d harden Pharoah’s heart? Wasn’t he working against his own people by preventing Pharoah from letting them go?


We stopped studying and had a discussion about the reasons as to why G-d would harden Pharoah’s heart. Ideas we had:

1: It’s all part of a bigger plan in which we do not know. G-d knew that G-d must harden Pharoah’s heart numerous times in order to ultimately find the freedom for the Israelites. Perhaps the Egyptians had to go through all 10 plagues in order to actually and completely release the Jews from bondage?


2: What we don’t read in the text but may infer is that every time Pharoah’s heart was hardened he increased the abuse of the Israelites more and more, therefore it began a chicken and the egg situation. Pharoah abuses the Israelites, he receives the first plague, Pharoah increases the pain and suffering against the Israelites, Pharoah receives the second plague, and on and on. Perhaps between the lines of receiving the plague and hardening Pharoah’s heart the abuse escalates and G-d means to punish Pharoah with an even worse plague, culminating in the ultimate punishment, death of the firstborn sons.


3: At this point in our study I was reminded of the docuseries and Demanjak’s grandson’s last words: “It doesn’t matter whether he was Ivan the terrible or not. He did what he had to do to survive. It was a choice for him to live or to die and he did what he had to do in order to live.” (Spoiler alert) How the docuseries end is Demanjak is not convicted of being Ivan the terrible but decades later he is charged by Germany as being a nazi. They could not prove that he was Ivan the terrible but they could prove (with the fall of the Soviet Union) that he had been a nazi during the war. Even though he is in his nineties, Germany and the US decide to charge him and proceed with a trial because- Everyone must receive punishment for serving injustice. Everyone who participated no matter how small or insignificant must be judged or full justice for those who were murdered is only mitted out when all those who contributed are tried.


This had me thinking about how G-d hardening Pharoah’s heart may be to ensure that all Egyptians who participated in the enslavement of the Israelites receive their own judgment and punishment. Perhaps some did not experience the effects of hail so locusts were sent, perhaps some didn’t experience the damage of the locusts so darkness had to come, etc.


If looked at from this perspective our Parsha begs the question of who is responsible for the enslavement and treatment of the Israelites and do all need to receive payment for there to be full justice, full freedom? And of course, we can apply this same line of thinking to our lives today, how do we contribute to certain injustices and are we responsible for stopping them knowing justice will be given to all.