My dad had his first heart attack when I was 15 years old. He worked long hours, ate poorly, and worst of all, he smoked more than two packs of cigarettes a day. I absolutely hated the smoking; I told him how I felt, but to no avail. It seemed that he would not, or perhaps, could not stop. His bad habits were actually “hardening his heart,” but even more frustrating was his stubbornness, his refusal to hear how his habits were in truth killing him, a lesson to me about how we can harden our own hearts when we are not open to really hear or change our ways.
In Va-eira, we learn about the consequences of a hardened heart. As we know, conditions for the Israelite slaves were unbearable. At the end of last week’s portion, Sh’mot, God sent Moses to demand that the Pharaoh free “My people,” but that only made the situation considerably worse.
God now tells Moses to demand once again; only this time, God has a plan to make sure that Pharaoh will let our Jewish people go: “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:2 -3).
The signs and marvels promised by God are the well-known ten plagues of the Exodus story. We recall them during our Pesach Seder as we lessen the wine from our glasses: blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn Egyptian. Only the first seven of the ten plagues are in Va-eira, but they certainly set the stage for the final catastrophic disasters to come.
Although God promises, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” the text, describing the first five plagues, relays a different story. To begin with, we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In other words, Pharaoh was stubborn; literally, “his heart was heavy.” During the last five plagues, however, the text reads, “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”
What can we learn from this portion? Clearly, being stubborn can seriously back you into a corner. Pharaoh had five opportunities to grasp what he was up against, but he was stubbornly unmoved and arrogant. With each plague, his heart got harder, heavier. It is as if God said, “Ok, you hardened your heart. You ignored Me. Let Me add to your burden; even if you changed your mind and wanted to acquiesce now, I will harden your heart.”
Stubbornness, an unmovable attitude, can be so destructive today as well. How many times have we found ourselves, or others in our lives, holding onto a strong opinion, feeling “right” in our stance, and consequently, creating rifts within, what otherwise should be loving, caring relationships. Judgement can do that. That stubbornness, that hardening of the heart, can break family and friendship bonds and hurt the ones we love. We need to, we must, soften our hearts.
Judaism teaches that you can change. We do not need to be stubborn; we do not need to be a Pharaoh.
May we open our hearts and live with grace. For when we are stubborn, when we judge, we close off the possibility to love. And life experience continues to teach us that when we have the choice to be kind or “right,” we need to choose kind. I am continually moved by Mother Teresa’s philosophy: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Let us begin this New Year with the determination to be our best selves. Wishing you all a healthy, happy 2019.