Parashat Vaera, 5770
January 16, 2010
In my parashah, Vaera, God tells Moses that He remembered the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land and says that He is going to honor this promise. God then says that Moses will be God’s messenger to Pharaoh. Later in the parashah, God demonstrates His power, first with the staff turning into a serpent, and then with the first seven of the ten plagues: the Nile River turning into blood, the land filling with frogs, then lice, then insects, then the sickness of the livestock, then boils, and then heavy hail. After each plague, Pharaoh tells Moses to ask God to stop and promises to let the Israelites go, but each time he changes his mind because “his heart hardens.”
When I was in preschool learning the story of the Exodus during Passover, I learned that Pharaoh wasn’t nice to the Jews and wouldn’t let them be free. We used to sing about how Moses kept saying, “Please let my people go,” and Pharaoh kept saying, “No, no, no! I will not let them go!” I thought that Pharaoh said no on purpose because he didn’t care about the Jewish slaves suffering, but when I started to read this parashah, I found out that it is more complicated than this, that in fact, at least some of the time, it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. This surprised me and made me have a couple of questions. Why is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? If God’s goal is for Pharaoh to free the Israelites, then why is God doing this? And this got me wondering about what it even means to have a hard heart. Do people experience this today, like when bad things happen to them, and if they do, how can a person heal a hard heart so that he or she isn’t in turn mean to other people?
In our Amitim class, we talked about the fact that there are two different ways of saying “hardening” of the heart in this parashah. We all found this very interesting. Why doesn’t the Torah just use one word to express the concept of “hardening the heart”? One word is Hazak, as in Chapter 9, verse, 12: “Vayehazake Adonai et lev Paro,” (“But the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh”). The word Hazak means strong, or in this case, strengthened, although it is translated in Etz Hayim as “stiffened.” The other word used in this parashah for hardened is Kavod, as in Chapter 8, verse 28: “Vayachbayd Paro et leebo,” (“But Pharaoh became stubborn.”) The word kavod which is the root of Vayachbayd can mean honor, but in this case, it seems to mean heavy. A heavy heart is hard to carry and maybe the Torah is saying that Pharaoh’s heart is heavy because he carries some sadness, not only because God is hardening his heart. I wondered whether something tragic happened to Pharaoh in his childhood. Maybe a parent died or abandoned him, and instead of letting his emotions out, he bottled them all up until his heart became heavy and hard. In Pirkei Avot, we are advised to let people express their anger and hurt. In Chapter 4, verse 23, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar says, “Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger,” which I think means don’t stop someone from getting his or her feelings out because expressing feelings is part of keeping your heart open, so that it doesn’t become too heavy.
Even though the use in the Torah of these words is really interesting and it makes the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart even more complicated and mysterious, it didn’t help me very much to answer my questions of why is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and what does it mean to have a hard heart? Is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart on purpose and if so, why? Maybe Pharaoh starts off with a hard heart already, and God just allows him to continue that way. In the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, verse 2, Ben Azai says that the reward of doing the right thing is to continue doing the right thing, and the consequence of doing the wrong thing is to continue doing the thing wrong. This is portrayed in a song “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah.” So, maybe this explains what God is doing to Pharaoh, but not why God is doing it.
Another possible reason God is doing this to Pharaoh could be that God is punishing Pharaoh for being so cruel to The Israelites. He is doing this by making Pharaoh’s heart hard, so that Pharaoh can’t say yes to let the people go, and therefore has to experience all the terrible plagues. It seems like God is taking revenge on Pharaoh for keeping the Israelites in slavery. But while a punishment is usually meant to teach a lesson, in this case, Pharaoh may not even know that God is hardening his heart and if he doesn’t know, how can he learn a lesson?
A different theory about why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart is that maybe God wants to be known to the world as the ruler of the universe. God’s way of showing the Egyptians, and the Israelites, that Pharaoh doesn’t control the whole world, and God does, is to cause the plagues. Up until the point that God causes the plagues, the Egyptians might have thought that Pharaoh was, in fact, in charge of the world.
One thing that disturbed me in this parashah, is that God seems to be taking away Pharaoh’s free will. But, in fact, by having his heart hardened, in its meaning of “strengthened," Pharaoh is able to live through the plagues. God is actually returning Pharaoh’s sense of free will because he is not acting just from a place of fear or being overwhelmed. He is going through a painful learning experience to get to the point where he can eventually decide for himself. I think this is another reason why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and one that makes a lot of sense to me.
Now that we have explored the question of, “Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” we can look at the question of, “What does hardening of the heart mean, and is this something that we experience today?”
I think that someone could get a hard heart when another person does something so awful to him or her that the person feels really bad and scared to show his or her emotions. This causes the person to have “a hard heart.” After their heart becomes hard, they feel that they have to be mean to other people also.
An example of this is in a really good movie called “Akeelah and The Bee”. In this movie, the mom of a girl named Akeelah is hardened by the murder of her husband. She is full of anger and disappointment in life and as a result, she is hard on Akeelah because she doesn’t want her to experience disappointment too.
Life is full of experiences that harden peoples’ hearts. These experiences could be the death of a loved one, being the victim of violence, racism, war, and many other things. These things can overwhelm someone’s heart and close him or her off from the world. The sad fact is that most people will live through a potentially heart hardening experience in the course of their life. The real question is how will we each deal with these experiences? To get through a hard time, it might actually help to have a hard heart, but to really experience life fully again afterwards, a hardened heart might be very limiting. Because you feel a hardening of your heart, you might feel so mad or sad that you can’t enjoy life with people that care about you. You might close yourself off from them and from connecting to them. But living through a hard time could also make you stronger because you found the strength to get through it and maybe the process of finding that strength reopens your heart to the good parts of life.
Sometimes, God or a connection with Judaism may help in the process of healing a hardened heart. For example, when somebody experiences the death of a loved one, Judaism offers comforting practices such as sitting shiva, The Mourners’ Kaddish, or simply talking to a Rabbi or hugging your friends in the community. In chapter 2, verse 5 of Pirkei Avot, Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This quote makes the point that your community cares for you and when you have a hardened heart, your community wants to help you, so you should stay connected with them.
An example of how somebody overcame a hard heart through a positive Jewish experience was this. I was talking to a close friend of my family’s a few weeks ago, who said that her father had survived The Holocaust. As a child, during The Holocaust, he lived in about ten different concentration camps. Many years after The Holocaust, he started to open and direct Jewish summer camps. So, he went from concentration camps, full of death, to summer camps, full of life. Directing Jewish summer camps may have helped him to overcome his hard heart from The Holocaust. He may have healed his hardened heart by giving to other people.
Another way of overcoming a hard heart, or making yourself feel better even though you have a hardened heart, is by surrounding yourself with nice people who love you, and doing things that make you feel happy. Sometimes when I feel a little sad, I see my friends and talk with my family, or I watch a happy movie, or listen to some nice music. This always makes me feel happy. I think that sometimes when you might have a hard heart, it helps to be with people who care for you, because loneliness might even cause your heart to become harder. Being part of life is crucial in overcoming a hardened heart, so that you don’t keep reminding yourself of all the sad things that have happened, and you keep looking on the bright side of things.
One thing in my life that makes my heart hard sometimes is not having grandparents around. Especially since last summer, when my only Grandpa that I’d ever known, died. I sometimes get jealous of other people that get to see their grandparents every week, or get to have Thanksgiving or their birthdays with them every year, or simply having a lot of grandparents alive. This sometimes makes me mad or sad, but then I just think of all the good times I got to have with my grandparents, or I have Shabbat dinner with my family friends, Taku, Alan, Maya, and Doris, who are here today, who feel like family. This all helps me overcome my hard heart.
While time itself may help heal a saddened heart, healing a hardened heart takes more effort and doing some of the things I have described– surrounding yourself with community and friends, giving to other people, using rituals for comfort, and appreciating what you have. While we may never fully understand why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we can learn a valuable thing from this parashah, about our own hearts, and all the dangers of having a hard heart. In Jewish tradition the heart is the seat of all emotions. There is a midrash that lists over 60 emotions of the heart including these: “the heart sees, hears, speaks, falls, stands, rejoices, weeps, comforts, and sorrows.” If our hearts are hardened, think of all the experiences we are cutting ourselves off from. A lot of things may cause our hearts to harden, but we need to make sure that we re-open our hearts to life after that. We should surround ourselves with things that will help us to heal our hard hearts, because then we can be part of all the loving people and things in this world.