01/02/2014 02:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Come to Pharaoh: Torah's Invitation to Be Afraid of Our Own Indifference (Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16)

On Dec. 25, I walked into the grocery store around the corner from our apartment and found a large display of sale items. Last-minute stocking-stuffers? Little Santa-shaped chocolates? Slightly damaged ornaments looking for a home?

No, all of the sale items were dried fruit, and each wished me a "Tu Bishvat Sameach" (Happy Tu Bishvat).

I am savoring the tail end of a three-month sabbatical in Tel Aviv and, with Hanukkah far behind us, we -- or at least the folks in the dried fruit marketing business -- are getting ready for the next Jewish holiday. Tu Bishvat, also known as the New Year of the Trees, falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year correlates to Jan. 16.

Some folks plant trees (in climates where such trees would survive), others use Tu Bishvat to focus on environmental issues more broadly, and still others hold Tu Bishvat seders that focus on the mystical meanings of different kinds of fruits. But eating fruits -- especially those that grow in the land of Israel -- seems to be something most Tu Bishvat observances have in common.

And oh, these fruits! Our neighborhood grocery store has a dazzling display right at the entrance: dried oranges and five kinds of dates. Not only were the fruits on sale, but amid the stacks of figs and apricots, there were also bags of "bokser"! If you've never seen carob (bokser is its Yiddish name) in its original form, it looks like a long flat brown bean pod, except you eat the sweet pod itself and chew carefully to avoid hitting any of the rock-hard seeds with your teeth. Carob is a traditional Tu Bishvat food -- my mother's mother fondly remembered eating bokser as a child growing up on the Lower East Side -- and to say that it is not readily available where I live in the States would be an understatement.

I was so excited by this whole display that I tried not to buy every single variety of date they had available. However, I did pick out a few things including one package of carob to eat now and one to bring back and share with my congregation in Reading, Pa.

As I bit into my first piece of bokser, there was something in its sweetness that was somehow troubling to me. I am used to spending December immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a holiday I don't celebrate. I am used to feeling like people's "Seasons Greetings" don't really apply to me. And this feeling of being on the outside looking in has more deeply sensitized me to others who might feel left out for any number of reasons, whether as individuals or as members of excluded minorities.

Floating blissfully in the religious/cultural mainstream here in Israel always both delights and surprises me. I am happily taken aback when the cashier at the convenience store wishes me "Shabbat shalom!" on a Friday morning. And as I tried vainly last month to discern the number and direction of an approaching bus, my annoyance (mostly) turned to joy when I realized its directional display had been replaced with the greeting "Chanukah Sameach" in huge digital letters.

Even as I feel a deep sense of well-being here, I worry about becoming too accustomed to this immersion in my own people's culture. And I think this week's Torah portion teaches me that this worry is not unfounded.

When Parashat Bo begins, Pharaoh has watched as his land and his people are subjected to seven of the Ten Plagues, and yet he remains incapable of letting the Hebrew slaves go free. The Torah portion takes its name from the first verse in which God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh. But the Hebrew word "bo," usually translated as "go," literally means "come." What can God possibly mean by telling Moses "come to Pharaoh"?

The Zohar -- the central Jewish mystical text that came to light in Spain in the 13th century -- posits that God is offering to accompany Moses, and that together they will go right into the essence of Pharaoh to destroy evil at its root.

I want to hear this invitation into Pharaoh's heart differently. I hear Torah inviting me to take a peek at the world through Pharaoh's own eyes and to be terrified. Terrified of indifference to the suffering of others. Terrified of the kind of self-worship that deafened Pharaoh to his own people's needs. And terrified of Pharaoh's inability to imagine that the world could be seen in any other way.

Enjoying discounted Tu Bishvat fruits might seem like a far cry from enslaving a whole people, and it certainly is. But in my heart I worry that being part of the cultural in-crowd could lead to losing my ability to hear the cries of those who feel left out. Giving me a glimpse of the world through Pharaoh's eyes, I hear Torah warning me not to harden my own heart even in this seemingly small way. I still want to enjoy all the wonders of being immersed in Jewish culture, I just never want my enjoyment to turn to entitlement.

As it turns out, bokser is the perfect fruit for this job; its hard, pebble-like seeds can't be taken for granted. Eat it without paying attention to every sweet bite, and you risk losing a tooth.

The full moon of Tu Bishvat lights our path toward the full moons of Purim and then Passover. May the fruits of the land of Israel that we enjoy on Tu Bishvat keep us keenly focused on Passover's radical message to love the stranger, because we know how it feels to be a stranger.

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