Conditioning Our Hearts

Va'era By :  Shuly Rubin Schwartz Chancellor and Irving Lehrman Research Professor of American Jewish History Posted On Jan 20, 2007 / 5767 | Torah Commentary

In this week’s parashah, as our narrative draws ever closer to the climactic Exodus from Egypt, we feel the drama building. All of the key players — Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, and of course, God — are in place. And just as we, the readers, feel that finally the circumstances are in place for this momentous occasion, the story drags on. Moshe asks permission for the Israelites to leave, and Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. God inflicts plagues, not just once but ten times, leaving us wondering just what is taking so long!

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart; in essence he turned his back on the suffering of the Israelites and refused to free them. As the final verse of this week’s parashah notes, “But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.” Pharaoh’s intransigence has many adverse effects, the least of which is the lengthening of the story. His obstinacy prolongs the enslavement of the Israelites and indirectly leads God to inflict the plagues on the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s own people. Overall, his stubbornness serves to punish both his friends and his foes.

Though framed as the flaw of a powerful leader, intransigence is a quality to which all humans can relate. Reading about Pharaoh’s response, we are reminded of how easy it is for us humans to be drawn into a negative pattern of behavior to such an extent that it becomes incrementally more difficult at each subsequent moment to extricate ourselves from the pattern and change our actions. We argue with a friend, feel bad about it, and subsequently feel too embarrassed to follow up with a phone call, acknowledge the friend’s birthday, or show up at the party of a mutual friend. Before we know it, months have gone by and we have become estranged from our friend, even though we may no longer even remember what caused the initial argument.

The Torah describes this irreversible intransigence by telling us after the first five plagues that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This same image of hardening the heart appears in Isaiah 6:10: “Dull that people’s mind,” but literally, “Clog the heart of that people,” The twelfth–century rabbi and philosopher Maimonides explicated this phrase, saying that it means that the people sinned repeatedly out of their own free will, until they forfeited the opportunity of repentance. Similarly, Maimonides clarifies his view that God did not force Pharaoh to do evil to Israel. Pharaoh sinned on his own, becoming more and more hard–hearted each time, until he forfeited his right to repent.

With Pharaoh, we see the overwhelmingly negative consequences that hardening one’s heart can inflict on others. But the opposite is also true. Even when others harden their hearts, if you soften yours, you can gradually but perceptibly soften the blow. We cannot control the plagues of our time — the horrors of war, disease, and death — but we can condition our hearts to do good, and in so doing, we can often make a real difference.

My late husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, z”l, was a vocal advocate of organ donation. He spoke about it from the pulpit, wrote about it in his synagogue bulletin, and proudly wore the lapel pin indicating his support for the cause. He hoped that his public stance would persuade individuals that organ donation was a mitzvah incumbent upon all who are in a position to do so. Practically speaking, Gershon hoped that he would convince people to check off the organ–donor box on their driver’s licenses. Little did he imagine that he would be in a position to serve as an organ donor. Yet, when Gershon died unexpectedly two and a half years ago, he did in fact do so. Of course, at that point, it was no longer his choice. A heart transplant is performed posthumously, when the donor can no longer consciously make that decision. But because Gershon had conditioned his heart metaphorically to such an extent during his lifetime, we knew exactly what he would literally want us to do with it. This made it possible for his heart to continue to do good beyond his life, for we fulfilled Gershon’s wishes by arranging for the transplant. Thanks to his words and actions during his lifetime, his heart now beats in someone else’s body. As the recipient wrote to my family and me, this heart “was a miracle for myself and my family…. Gershon continues to live through me and that will always be a precious thing to me.”

How poignant that the recipient used the word “miracle” to describe his new heart, for Va–era recounts the first seven of the plagues, events that are commonly referred to as “miracles.” The juxtaposition reminds us that while, on the one hand, a hardened heart caused God to send miracles that inflicted pain, suffering, and death; on the other hand, a softened, good heart gave life, bringing immeasurable joy to another individual and his family.

As this parashah shows us, the choices we make each and every day can have an impact well beyond anything we might imagine. Though our control over our destiny is limited, we have the awesome privilege as well as the tremendous responsibility to make the best possible choices. May we all exercise that power wisely.

Shabbat shalom,

Shuly Rubin Schwartz

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.