January 3, 2019


1.4.2019 Weekly Torah Portion

“Who needs a heart if a heart can be broken?” sings Tina Turner in a loud and confident manner.  We hear the lyric and wonder what heart she is talking about.  Certainly not the biological heart — that crucial organ in our body that beats over 100,000 times a day or 42 million times over an average life span.  Without a physical heart we would not be able to be part of this world, or discover our purpose.  Other hearts come to mind — there are loving hearts, warm hearts, open hearts, broken hearts, cold hearts, and hard hearts.  In the course of our lifetime we, as human beings, are capable of experiencing each type of heart.  Yet in the midst of our addiction our heart hardens.  We become our own Pharaoh.

In this week’s parashah, Va’rah, we learn about hard, stiff, stubborn hearts that refuse to grow and open to the obvious.  The parashah repeats the following paradigm eight times: Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and ask him, “Let the People go.”  He refuses, God facilitates a plague via Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh relents, the plague stops, and then Pharaoh hardens his heart, and he refuses to let the Israelites go.

It is interesting to look at this motif as a model of the relationship between God (our yetzer ha’tov) and Pharaoh (our yetzer ha’rah).  God is open, while Pharaoh’s life-giving organ is stiff and closed.  He seems unwilling or perhaps unable to change.  His growth as a human being is stymied.

The Torah finds so many ways to describe a closed heart.  We know that language is important in the Hebrew Bible, and when different words are used we are to learn something.  In the text, as we read the story of Pharaoh’s heart we learn several Hebrew words used to describe a closed heart, and the Etz Hayyim translation provides us with numerous English meanings which help us learn about Pharaoh and about our own Pharaoh.  It makes us wonder: what does a crippled heart look like, and are there alternatives?

In Exodus 7:3 the text tells us that [God] will harden Pharaoh’s heart.  In the Hebrew the word is אקשה (eh-kasheh), from the root “to be hard, severe or fierce.”  This theme continues throughout the parsha — six times Pharaoh, on his own, hardens his heart.

In Exodus 7:22 the text states: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them” (Moses and Aaron). The Hebrew word used in this verse is ויחזק (va’yechezeik) from the root “to be or grow firm or strong, strengthen.”  A verse later the text tells us that Pharaoh turned away from Moses and went into the palace, failing to listen to Moses and Aaron.  Pharaoh’s heart is hard, severe, firm, strong, and uninterested in hearing God.

Pharaoh does not have a heart that thinks about doing the next right thing.  In fact the 12th century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra explores the recurring theme of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, first articulated in Exodus 7:3, and states: “God gives man wisdom and plants within his heart the intelligence to receive a higher power that enables him to increase pleasure, or to lessen pain.“  Pharaoh makes other choices.

As the plagues continue the Torah uses the same Hebrew word: ויחזק (va’yechezeik); but at Exodus 8:15 the Etz Hayim translates the Hebrew as “stiffens.”  Exodus 8:28 introduces a new verb: דויכב (v’yachbeid), from the root “to be heavy, weighty, or burdensome.”  The Etz Hayyim uses the English phrase “to become stubborn.”  Exodus 9:7 uses the same word: יכבד (y’kaveid), and translates it similarly to the prior verse: “Pharaoh remained stubborn.”

The parashah ends with two additional examples of Pharaoh hardening his heart – with a slight variation.  Now God begins to influence Pharaoh’s heart, and the text tells us that it is God who causes Pharaoh לחזק (l’chezeik); God “stiffens” Pharaoh’s heart.  What is curious about these last two situations is that God is the one who acts, who causes Pharaoh’s heart to stiffen.  (We might ask where Pharaoh’s free will is, but I’ll save that thought for another time.)

Going back to what it means to have a heart, we learn from this parashah that there are many ways our yetzer ha’rah can display itself in our hearts.  But is there another way that we can look at this theme of the hardened heart to ferret out another lesson: the cure for a hardened or stiffened heart is to crack it open.

The Hebrew Bible has examples of how our hearts can be cracked open.  In Deuteronomy 10:16-19 we are encouraged by God to:

Cut away any thickness about your heart and stiffen your necks no more.  For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe.  But upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

So we’ve come full circle.  Who needs a heart if a heart can be broken?  The obvious answer is that each one of us does.  We may sit with a heart that is stiff and stubborn, unwilling to crack open; but we instinctively and slowly, as our yetzer ha’tov overtakes our yetzer ha’ra, begin to understand that God has commanded us to cut away the thickness — to circumcise our hearts.  We must allow our hearts to be “broken” just a little bit so that we, unlike Pharaoh, can imitate God.  We too must befriend the strangers (sometimes those within ourselves) and provide needed sustenance to others.  Sometimes we simply need to welcome that part of ourselves that is hiding within our own stubborn hearts.  We’ve learned that Pharaoh was unable to open his heart — not so us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Chaplain Deborah Schmidt