When I was a kid, I used to love playing with action figures, specifically toys in the shape of my favorite superheroes or transforming robots. Though the elaborate plots and adventures of my toys would inevitably focus on righting some wrong and defeating some villain, I rarely owned the actual supervillain toy, so I had to pretend that one of the “good guys” was actually a “bad guy” during that particular storyline. Even though their time as an evildoer was short-lived, I always felt uncomfortable having any one superhero be the villain for long. No toy deserves that kind of treatment, because even as a young child I knew that no one actually wants to be the villain.
Today, even villains don’t really want to be villains anymore. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is pumping out movies and television shows in a decidedly “good versus evil” universe, frequently encourages theatergoers to consider the finer points of a villain’s dastardly plans. Thanos isn’t really bent on destroying half of all life in the universe, he’s just really concerned about resource usage. Killmonger wanted to free his people from historical oppression. Even Loki, the God of Mischief, is just looking for his place in the cosmos, and ultimately deserves redemption. No one wants to stay the villain for long, because with a little bit of perspective and a willingness to change, even a villain can be heroic. No one stays the villain for long: Heroes in the MCU have multi-movie deals that can last decades while the bad guys are vanquished in one or two movies.
The morality plays of our time teach us that no one really wants to be the villain, especially when there are so many benefits to being good. No one needs to be the villain when it is so easy to be good.
Yet, as our parsha reminds us, it is shockingly easy to be bad. The Torah repeatedly describes the evil of Pharaoh, the Lex Luthor to Moshe’s Superman, as stemming from the hardness of his heart. Over and over Pharaoh’s wicked deeds, his refusal to hear the plight of the weak and downtrodden, his refusal to free the people, his recalcitrance, his constant reneging, are shown to be mined from the stone at the center of his being. It would seem to follow that for all of God’s exhortations to upright and ethical behavior, the core of being good, decent, and the opposite of Pharaoh is to avoid having a hard heart. It’s seemingly easy to not be a villain.
However, when teaching the about the mitzvah of tzedakah, God demands:
“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
Do not harden your heart when you meet your kinsperson in dire straits. Rashi understands “hardening one’s heart” to mean deliberating whether to give or not. The Netziv explains it as taking pity on one’s own money. They agree that the Torah wants us to give without perseverating over whether the receiver is truly worthy, or whether our money would be better off if it remained in our wallets. This verse teaches that every time we find ourselves with the opportunity to give to the needy and instead question who deserves our tzedakah more, us or them, we are hardening our hearts. Whenever we are faced with poverty, we are challenged to avoid Pharaoh’s mistakes.
This is where the Torah vehemently disagrees with both Marvel and my childhood toy stories: It is surprisingly easy to harden our hearts, to be like Pharaoh. It’s actually quite easy to be a villain. We don’t need a cape or scary mask or plans for world domination. All that transformation takes is coming face to face with someone in need and giving them nothing but a closed hand and a heart of stone.
What can we do to avoid the villainous pitfall of Pharaoh? Our parsha’s next verse provides a recourse for both a closed hand and hard heart: “Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:8). Open your hand, literally and metaphorically, providing the funds to support the needy. But to truly break the cycle of villainy and soften our hearts, we must “lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” Our sages teach that doing so entails meeting the needy where they are, and determining what needs they have to fulfill them, whether those needs are food, clothing, shelter, transportation, or even companionship or love. (Rashi; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:3).
It’s easier to be a villain, but the heroic act our verse demands is looking at those who are needy and seeing them not as ancillary characters in our stories, or even worse, as minor villains who have chosen to inconvenience us for a few moments on our ways to work. Instead, by addressing the fullness of their needs, and humanity, we see them as heroes in their own stories, just waiting for their redemption arc. Our role in the story is to see them, assist them in meeting their needs, and help them reach a place where they too can achieve the heroism of a soft heart and an open hand.