Hardening Our Hearts
This week’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Bo was written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Vice President of American Jewish University, who holds the Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.
Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar, Executive Director of CAJE Miami, writes a Kavannah, an item for personal practice related to the message of the parsha, at the end.
Immersed in the drama of liberating his enslaved people, Moses prepares to appear before Pharaoh, to insist that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt. God instructs his servant, Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them..." [Shemot/ Exodus 10:1]
Throughout the years, as Jews gather to recount the exodus from Egyptian slavery, that passage causes puzzlement, resentment, and embarrassment. It sounds like God purposely makes it impossible for Pharaoh to do the right thing, even if he wanted to.
Perhaps Pharaoh could have come to see the justice of what Moses was asking for. Or, perhaps he wasn't really such an evil person and only acted the way he did because he was under the influence.
Under God's heavy-handed influence, Pharaoh's heart turned heavy too.
As if we don't have enough problems with what God does to Pharaoh, there's also the issue of God's justification for making Pharaoh so irresponsible. The reason God provides as justification is that Pharaoh's refusal to let the Jews go will permit a display of divine power that will make a big impression on everyone around.
The problem is that all this makes it sound like Divine ego prevents Pharaoh from being a mentsch! That hardly reflects the lofty ethics that we expect from the Torah. It hardly corresponds to the selfless love we expect from God.
As unpleasant as this intrusion of divine power may be, as morally questionable as it seems, it is nonetheless true that it reflects the reality of human psychology and behavior.
A wonderful story in Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah affirms that the process that Pharaoh went through is very much like the process of desensitization that we all require to endure life's unpleasant situations.
Rabbi Yohanan shares our moral discomfort with God's role. He asks, "Doesn't this [heart-hardening] provide skeptics with the grounds for arguing that Pharaoh had no possibility of repenting?"
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish responds that "when God warns someone once, twice, and even a third time, and that person doesn't repent, then and only then does God close his heart against repentance and exact vengeance from his sins. Thus it was with wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent [plagues] five times to him and he [Pharoah] sent no notice, God then said, 'You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own; well, I will add to your uncleanness.... So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God."
Isn't that how the human heart always works: At first, we are strong enough to say "no" to temptation. The first time we give in to an illegitimate urge, we do so only moderately, and amidst great guilt and anxiety.
With each succeeding indulgence, our guilt is a little less, and our participation a little more sweeping and whole-hearted. After a few exposures to the lust of the moment, we are soon enjoying it without even recalling our initial discomfort or lofty standards.
In short, our hearts, like Pharaoh's, become hardened.
Passing a beggar on the street without responding to his need is impossible for children because they aren't used to it. But for a hardened resident of any American city, they get to a point where they no longer even see the humanity of the hungry person before them, no longer hear the sorrow or despair in the voice that calls out to them.
In so many ways, our hearts, too, have become hard. Are we really willing to live in a country teeming with homeless people, with hunger an ever-present affliction, with illness and illiteracy and bigotry established in our midst?
Open your hearts, once again, to outrage. Our brothers and our sisters are suffering among us. Our indifference permits their pain. Our hardened hearts allow their disgrace.
Pharaoh wasn't evil; he was just apathetic. Indifference is all it takes for evil to triumph.
A Kavannah from Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar
When you see a person begging for money, your first thought might be any number of things, and they all may be correct:
“They should get a job!”
“They will use the money I give them to buy drugs or alcohol and feed their addiction.”
“Giving money to them will enable them to stay out of a shelter where they belong.”
All of these statements may be true. And all of these statements increase your level of judgment, which assuages your conscience while simultaneously not helping the individual in need.
But what if you considered the issue from a different point of view? A perspective which happens to be favored by our sages as well.
What action will soften your heart (the opposite of hardening!) and will encourage you to see the humanity of the person asking you for help?
What action will increase your middah/quality of hesed/ loving-kindness?
I think we can all agree that the answer is giving the money.
And that is why I carry dollar bills in my car and my wallet. So that whenever I am asked by someone who is in need, I can give.
(Side note: If, by chance, you don’t have any money, say that to the person and give them a blessing from your heart.)
Each time I do so, I know that I am softening my heart and increasing my perception of their humanity.
But even more gratifying is when one of the people I have given to looks me in the eye and says some variation of these words: “Thank you so much. God bless you. People say and do such cruel things to me standing out here. This makes me feel human again.”
So by giving, you not only increase your own personal level of hesed, you increase the receiver’s perception of his/her own humanity (which is such a fragile thing when everything is going well in one’s life; how much more so, when someone is a beggar on the street!)
To me there is nothing more important than working on increasing both my sense of generosity and the receiver’s sense of self-worth— both expressions of our mutual creation “Betzelem Elohim”/ In the image and likeness of the Divine.
And the best thing of all is that my son, Matan, grew up watching me do this and when I visit him, I see that he is now doing it himself as an adult. My cup runneth over…