This week’s Torah portion, Bo, details the last three plagues brought down upon Egypt: locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born. The first seven are described in last week’s portion. The telling of the plagues is punctuated by an interesting, and perhaps troubling, phrase: “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”
The drama moves back and forth. Moses goes to Pharaoh telling him that the Jewish people must be allowed to leave. Pharaoh refuses. God brings a plague. Pharaoh decides to let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh changes his mind telling Moses the people cannot leave. God brings another plague. Even after the tenth plague Pharaoh again has a change of heart and pursues the Israelites to the Sea of Reeds where his army is drowned. The Torah’s drama then moves away from Egypt to the wilderness.
Pharaoh’s change of heart is marked by the phrase “For I have hardened his heart.” The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perhaps “I weighed his heart down.” What is the meaning of this unusual phrase? What does it mean to harden our hearts?
A Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz (1890-1945), offers the following comment. He begins by quoting a midrash. This phrase is as it is written in Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” He then goes on to interpret the rabbinic commentary with the following observation: It is hard to write on a rock, but after something is engraved on it, the writing will last forever. In the case of sand, on the other hand, one finds it easy to write whatever he wishes, but the writing can be erased in an instant. The difference between the two is the same as that between the person who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it, and the person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages—he found it hard to understand, and he forgot easily. Immediately after he said, “God is right,” he changed his mind and did not allow Israel to leave.
Typical of the Hasidic masters this negative notion of hardening the heart is transformed into one that has positive potential, albeit a potential that Pharaoh missed. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that would have left an imprint for a lifetime. He would have taken to heart the lesson that you must never harden your heart to others. You must never harden your heart to their suffering.
At times our hearts are open. Other times they are closed. Sometimes our hearts are weighed down by sorrow. And other times by pain. Sometimes our hearts are hardened by stubbornness. Other times by ideology. To what do we harden our hearts? What weighs our hearts down? What stands in the way of our learning lessons that will last a lifetime, lessons that could be written on stone?