We take up our story in the parashah called VaEra at chapter 7, verse 14: Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. Moshe and Aharon had come to bring him a message, and he turned away from it.
A close examination of the events so far indicate no reason why Pharaoh should be impressed: Moshe and Aharon his brother have appeared before him, and Aharon has turned his walking staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s servants promptly imitated the special effects, and Pharaoh turned away, dismissing the message and the messengers.
How many of us have had this experience, or been the victim of it? A disturbing message, dismissed as someone else’s truth, not mine? A message refused on the face of it, because it’s so patently ridiculous? After all, you see it your way and I see it mine, and aren’t both views – or even my assertion that there is nothing to see – both equally true?
It is true, after all, that all truth is relative; what is also true, however, is that different truths create different contexts and different consequences. Truth must be understood by the company it keeps, so to speak. What are the consequences of what we see and refuse to credit?
Pharaoh turns away, “hardening his heart” and refusing to listen to a message that seemed preposterous, or at least ridiculously unpleasant. Did his unwillingness to to listen, to look, early on really lead to the catastrophe his people experienced? And if so, what must we learn from this example of turning away from the unpleasant and disturbing messages that come to us? What are we risking by pretending everything will be all right – what are the chances, anyway?
On this Shabbat, what can we learn from a parashah called VaEra, from Exodus 6.3: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as a Mighty G-d, but by my Name I did not reveal Myself to them….
Perhaps that truth is revealed in different ways at different times, and different contexts. No one’s truth is absolute; all of us need to listen, and to look.
In a recent article about the polarization of American politics, Jill Lepore offers us a fresh perspective on this idea:
“In more analytically luxuriant times, political scientists debated some of the very questions that…before the denial of climate change, certain philosophers argued that all science is interpretation….But intellectuals, as Bruno Latour once pointed out, are nearly always one critique too late: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” Irony is cheap, not painless.” (New Yorker, Dec 2 2013, p. 79)
Truth is a very powerful weapon. In the wrong hands, it brings plagues and tragedy. We cannot afford to look away and dismiss the potential damage of arguments that seem absurd, especially when so many people are ready to uncritically adopt them.
Not all is revealed to anyone; humility is a necessary partner to the truth we think we know well enough to assert, and live by. But truth does exist, and as the Kotzker Rebbe said, we must look for it everywhere, and help it to rise from the ground.