Exodus Don’t Let Our Heavy Hearts Grow Hard

By Rabbi Jordan Braunig
Rabbi Jordan Braunig

Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Last week, while discussing something that had little to do with human anatomy, my middle child mentioned that the human heart is only the size of a fist. I am used to getting odd facts from my kids, but somehow this random piece of information stuck with me. All through the week, I imagined a fist of flesh within my chest. When I was walking up the hill toward our house, when I was waiting in line at the grocery store, when I was reading in bed before flipping the light out, I was accompanied by a small fist, opening slightly and tightening again—rhythmic, immediate, my steady companion.

The human heart features prominently in this week’s parashah, Vaera. Time and again in the story we witness the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, an embodied symbol of his stubborn refusal to relinquish control of the Israelites, his unwillingness to allow them to go free and worship their G-d. The initial instance of Pharaoh’s internal obstinance comes in the midst of the first plague. After Aaron’s staff-to-snake trick is replicated by the tyrant’s magicians, we read:

וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה
And, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as YHVH had said. (Exodus 7:13)

Many generations of commentators have pointed out the fact that these early instances of Pharaoh’s heart-hardening make no mention of the Holy One. Pharaoh, himself, seems to build up walls around his heart as a defense against the signs and wonders that are being demonstrated. Without any heavenly interference, he turns his heart into a clenched fist—tight, impenetrable, willing to cause harm. It is this fact, according to our Sages, that helps explain the more morally problematic, Divine-inflicted hardening that will follow. This teaching asserts that when the Holy One of Blessing stiffens Pharaoh’s heart later on in our portion, well, that’s just an example of middah k’neged middah/the punishment fitting the crime.

The modern, Torah scholar, Avivah Zornberg, in a lovely interview with On Being’s, Krista Tippet, explains how the tradition grapples with the theological problem of a Divine hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

“The classic direction to answer it has to do with reaching a point of no return; that one can make oneself obdurate and closed to all appeal from the outside world to such a point that, in fact, it’s as if autonomy, the human autonomy, ceases to act altogether. One no longer has the power to backtrack. And from that point onwards I think it’s a kind of figure of speech, then, to say that God hardens his heart.”

Yet, reading the parashah in these early days of 2024, I am less interested in whether or not G-d’s heart-hardening is morally justifiable, than I am with the lasting power and poignance of the cardiac metaphor. In most instances within Parashat Vaera, the Hebrew term used for Pharaoh’s heart-based stubbornness is kaved lev. The root kaf, bet, dalet (.כ.ב.ד ) often associated with giving honor, can also indicate a heaviness or a burden. When the plague of insects is finally cleared from the land, we can almost guess what will happen next.

וַיַּכְבֵּד פַּרְעֹה אֶת לִבּוֹ גַּם בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם
And Pharaoh hardened/heavied his heart this time also, and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:28)

In the aftermath of nearly every plague, we encounter a ruler whose intransigence is evidenced in a heart weighed down. Pharaoh’s heart becomes burdened to the point of no longer functioning. Somehow, the idea of a heavy-hearted Pharaoh feels more sympathetic to me than the hard-hearted.

For those of us who have been traveling through the world over these last months with heavy hearts, perhaps there is a message of warning that we encounter reading Vaera this year. The teaching is not that we should unburden ourselves; the weight of the world is quite something right now and we are meant to feel it. Yet, we must be mindful that our heavy hearts do not turn hard. It is quite easy to imagine the anguish and the anger that we feel calcifying within us. We could develop a stony way of being, a hardness that in other times would feel foreign to who we are. And, while it is understandable that we might construct shells around our innermost beings to help us feel protected in the midst of our vulnerability, we must resist the urge to cut ourselves off. The mistake of Pharaoh, again and again, is an unwillingness to see what is before his eyes, to hear those who speak directly before him. His heavy heart no longer feels and so it grows hard, up to the point where, as Zornberg points out, it is no longer clear who is doing the hardening.

In the last few days I have found myself placing my closed hand against my chest, like a gentle, low-contact vidui (confession). My fist on the outside, quietly listening to the beat of the fist within. I open my hand on my chest in hopes of causing a reciprocal loosening within; a gentle gesture to remind me that I aspire to openness and ease. I look at my hand in the midst of davening, poteach et yadecha—open up Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. (Psalms 145:16) I behold the open hand before me. This is the hand that plants bulbs in the garden, that wipes the table after dinner, that washes the hair of my children, that turns the page as I study. None of this can happen when it is balled into a fist, it requires an opening up. In order to reach out, to grasp the hand of my neighbor, to embrace those I hold dear, I must open my hand and open my heart again and again.

Rabbi Jordan Braunig serves as a campus rabbi and the Jewish chaplain at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. A spiritual fellow-traveler, his rabbinate is centered on helping those he encounters connect to community, to Jewish traditions and, G-d-willing, to themselves. Jordan was ordained by Hebrew College in 2014. He is available by email: jordan.braunig@emory.edu

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