Time to soften our hearts, hear our suffering

Time to soften our hearts, hear our suffering

Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16

When we speak of “Pharaoh,” of course, we are referring to the ruler of Egypt at the time Moses approaches to demand of him, “Let my People go!”

This is the pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.”  We are not referring to the earlier pharaoh who dreamt his dreams of fat and lean cows, foretelling a future of plenty and famine, and who was responsible for elevating Joseph from prison and placing him in a position of prominence and power. Alas, this pharaoh becomes a footnote in our story.

From where we sit in history — on the far side of the Exodus from Egypt, the only pharaoh who matters is the pharaoh upon whom 10 plagues are visited, the pharaoh whom Arnie Eisen, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, has described as “not at all a creative or purposeful leader.”  This, of course, is unfortunate for him.  After all, the battle between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt will both determine Egypt’s future and set the stage for Israel’s deliverance.

And what is the deciding factor in this contest between deities?  I submit it is the moments wherein we read that the King of Egypt has a hardened heart.

In a number of verses we read, “Pharaoh hardened his [own] heart” (Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15,19, 32; 9:7, 34-35; 13:15). In still others we read, “God will (or did) harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17). This gives rise to the age-old question: who is responsible for the condition of Pharaoh’s heart?  And if it was the God of Israel who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how then can God hold Pharaoh responsible for his actions?

The Hebrew for “hardened” comes from three different Hebrew sources. The first, kabed, means “to be heavy, insensible, dull.” The second, kasheh, conveys the sense of “being hard” and in certain instances can refer to “making something difficult.” The third word, chazak, is the most interesting and derives its meaning from the idea of being resolute or strengthened.

Strengthening one’s heart in this sense is best captured in the camp song lyrics: “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah.”  This means “one mitzvah follows another mitzvah, one sin follows another sin.”  The lesson?  Once we set ourselves on a certain path, our behavior may readily become patterned and increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to alter.

Our sages taught, “God leads us along a path we choose for ourselves.  If one wants to be good, God leads us toward goodness; if one wants to go down an evil road, God helps us do that, as well.” To which King Solomon in Proverbs adds, “The heart of a man plans his way, but God establishes his steps.”

So is it God or Pharaoh?  Once again, it is Eisen, who writes, “It seems Pharaoh, like so many other human beings, has become a prisoner of his own accumulated choices. He can think differently up to a point, until he can no longer do so. He deafens his ears to suffering for so long that, one day, he can no longer hear [the pulse of the world]. His hardened heart is in the way.”

Is it so different for you and me?  In what ways are we locked into a pattern of thought or behavior we can no longer imagine rethinking?  And if it’s so, who’s responsible, you or God?

Perhaps it is time we all soften our hearts so we might better hear our own suffering.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)