“Sometimes I feel like a total failure as a parent” said single-parent Atticus Finch toward the end of To Kill A Mockingbird “but I’m all they’ve got.” Today’s strife-ridden world welcomes Douglas Aronin’s lesson from this classic American novel. Pointing fingers is easy. Assuming personal responsibility is important.
This is what Moses seeks to instill as he begins teaching our ancestors in this week’s portion of Torah. There is a curious geopolitical detail in his retelling of their itinerary from Egypt toward the covenanted land. “But King Sihon was not willing to let us pass through, because the Lord your God had hardened his spirit (hik’sha rucho) and made his heart bold (imetz et-livavo) in order to deliver him into your power” (Deut. 2:30). Instead of permitting the Israelites to pass respectfully through their territory, Sihon waged war and was vanquished.
Why did God stage this conflict by hardening the foreign King’s spirit? Wasn’t Pharaoh the only leader whose heart was hardened by God? One commentator suggests that the difference made in this case of divine influence was more subtle. God made him inattentive to the consequences of his stubbornness (Netziv). Sihon’s bold heart convinced him that brazen toughness in international diplomacy was a winning strategy.
Maimonides wrote in the twelfth century that God only intervenes to incite a change of heart when leaders seek to flagrantly thwart God’s plans. This is the case with Pharaoh and, to a lesser extent, with Sihon. He then references an additional biblical instance implicating God with a change of heart. The prophet Elijah’s showdown atop Mt. Carmel connects God with the turning away of the hearts of the Children of Israel (I Kings 18:37). And yet, the very same Elijah will embrace an enduring errand – to help realign the hearts of parents and children (Mal. 3:24). Indeed, the path toward an ultimate messianic period is paved by such heartfelt restoration.
Atticus Finch does his best to parent well. He does so by heeding what’s in his heart, so he repudiates the racial injustice of his time. “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Wherever wrongs occur, may we have the courage to confront our own role in the web of contribution. And may Sunday’s observance of our calendar’s most painful fast day stir introspection that brings about responsible changes of heart for us all.