Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator-activist.

We must stop hardening our hearts

Hardness is natural in combat mode, but risks making it too difficult or too late to open our hearts and change our minds

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vaera, is a tough one. It contains the first seven of the plagues brought upon Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. Beyond the horror of the plagues themselves and the destruction they wreak upon Egypt and its people, at the heart of the story lies Pharaoh’s stubbornness and his refusal to free the People of Israel. Time after time, Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the people go and warn him of the next plague that will come if he continues. Yet again and again, Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites. On a few occasions, Pharaoh even promises that he will let the people go, but then very quickly changes his mind and continues in his stubbornness. At one point, even Pharaoh’s own servants beg him to let the Israelites go – but this only happens in next week’s parasha, and still fails to break Pharaoh’s resolve.

The parasha actually has quite a few colorful ways to describe Pharaoh’s stubbornness. For example: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened [literally: strengthened – וַיֶּחֱזַק] , and he did not listen to them” (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:16). “Pharaoh’s heart was heavy in his refusal to release the people” (Exodus 7:10). “He hardened his heart [literally: made his heart heavy – וְהַכְבֵּד] and did not listen to them” (Exodus 8:11). And so on and so on.

We may have heard or learned that God is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart – something that raises deep moral and theological questions. And indeed, the Torah itself states that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but not during the first plagues. Only during the last five plagues does the Torah state: “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12; Exodus 10:20; etc.). However, during the first five plagues, nowhere is it explicitly written that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Rather, it states that Pharaoh hardens his heart (in the active voice) or that his heart is hardened or made heavy (in the passive voice).

So what’s Pharaoh’s deal? Why is his heart so hard, even without divine intervention? The Torah does not provide us with a clear answer, but we can certainly conjecture. Perhaps Pharaoh is simply an overly proud and arrogant person – classic traits of those in positions of power. Or maybe his power has gone to his head, and he has become so drunk with his own power that he can no longer think clearly. Or perhaps he is afraid – afraid of losing his power or of changing the status quo to which he has become accustomed. Maybe he is trying to protect his ego, the image and reputation he has as a strong leader, and thus feels the need to show strength, especially in the face of a strong outside power (read: fragile masculinity). Or maybe he’s gone into a sort of “combat mode” that he can’t seem to get out of; and no matter how much the situation deteriorates and how much others try to reason with him, he only digs himself deeper and deeper into a pit of stubbornness and refusal, until he feels that there is no way out, that it is too late to change course. And at some point in all of this he loses control and loses his very ability to make free and rational decisions.

We can analyze Pharaoh all day, but Pharaoh is not the only one who suffers from a hard heart. It is rather noteworthy that at the very end of the parasha, Pharaoh’s advisors also suffer from the same hardness of heart: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he continued to sin, hardening his heart, as did his courtiers” (Exodus 9:24). Perhaps, then, a hard heart is a contagious disease? 

Later in the Torah, we learn that not only Egyptians run the risk of contracting the malady of a hard heart, but Israelites do as well, as perhaps do all human beings. In Deuteronomy, Moses warns: “If 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). Here Moses explicitly commands that one mustn’t harden one’s heart and close one’s hand in the face of a poor neighbor who needs help. But rather one must open one’s heart and extend one’s hand in aid. Elsewhere, he also imparts, “Remove [literally: circumcise – וּמַלְתֶּם] the foreskin of your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Rashi explains “the foreskin of your heart” as “the sealing and covering over the heart”. That is, everyone must remove from their heart that which seals and covers it, and prevents him from hearing and feeling and acting accordingly. So perhaps a hard (or “uncircumcised”) heart is not an acquired disease, but rather a congenital condition, one that is congenital and natural to all human beings, and which each and every person must work to be healed of.

Today, in these indescribably difficult times, it is extremely natural to want to harden and seal our heart – whether we sit in the seat of government or in a simple armchair at home. There is just too much pain, too much suffering – from every direction. It’s too painful, too scary to have a soft and open heart. It’s easier to close, seal, and cover. To be “strong” – or at least to appear to be strong. And in that manner to keep calm, to carry on, and to make “difficult” decisions, without feeling too much – or at all. Without hearing the voices of those crying and pleading for help, whether from within our own nation or beyond.

It is extremely natural to want to seal our heart, but also extremely dangerous. There is no knowing to what demise it may lead, or at what point will it become too hard or too late to open our heart, to change our mind and change course. And by that point, what will become of us? And what sort of people will we be?

But there is another way. To open one’s heart – especially in times of great trouble – requires special strength, special courage. Like the midwives Shifrah and Puah and like Pharaoh’s daughter in last week’s parasha, who risked everything when they refused to hearken to the voices of power and fear, but instead opened their hearts, acted out of compassion yet also out of wisdom and understanding, saved the lives of children who were not theirs, and thus began a process that ultimately led to liberation and redemption. They had strong hearts. Strong but not heavy. And so too may we have as well.

About the Author
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator and activist. Elliot is a senior educator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social change and co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.
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