Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mishpatim

The Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson, wrote: “When I see a person walk among us as though he has solved all riddles and conundrums, or as one for whom a new ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ has been written…or one who really doesn’t need any such guidance at all, since his mind is clear and relaxed and he has never known any sort of confusion, I think of him as someone who lives in another world, beyond the reversals, torments and hopes of our own muddled world, or perhaps someone who has solved all problems by chewing some magical cud.  As for myself, I’m happy with my confused, uneasy soul…”

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, elaborates many laws and introduces the Jewish notion called by its name.  According to tradition it is these mishpatim, laws, for which there are rational explanations.  An example: “When a person’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal.  If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner failed to guard against this, he must restore ox for ox, but he can keep the dead animal.”  (Exodus 21:35-36)

There are certain laws by which a just society is built.  How can you build any community where people do not take responsibility for each other?  How can you build a society where people murder?  Or where people steal?  Or for that matter, where people do not prevent their animals from injuring others?  The reasons for these laws are obvious.  They are mishpatim.

If you know that your ox (perhaps your dog or then again, your car) is a menace then you must guard against it injuring others.  Perhaps we should understand this law to mean, if you know a friend is a dangerous or reckless driver then you have a God given responsibility to keep them from harming others.  In the Torah there is no such notion as “It is none of my business.”  Everyone is responsible for building a just society.  The mishpatim, laws, detailed in this week’s portion are where we begin.  They are our society’s foundation.  They are the building blocks of any community.

There is another category of rules, however, called hukkim, for which there are no rational explanations.  Our Torah portion provides another example.  “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19)  This verse, repeated three times in the Torah, is the basis for the kosher dietary laws preventing the mixing of milk and meat.  According to the rabbis even this repetition has meaning.  One must not eat milk and meat, cook this mixture or even derive any benefit from it. 

Also according to the rabbis the rationale for this rule remains obscure.  There are many interpretations justifying this observance of not mixing meat and milk but all are mere attempts to explain what will forever remain mysterious.  This law remains part of the group of laws whose reasons remain obscure, perplexing and mysterious. 

Let us be honest.  Observing the dietary laws does not help build a just society.  Instead refraining from eating milk and meat together affirms mystery.  Too often we think that all problems can be solved, all questions answered.  Sometimes we even think that we control every aspect of our lives, that all is in our hands.  This is not the case.  Not everything has a reason.  Not everything can be explained.  Doing things whose reasons are mysterious does not make them irrational.  It makes them only unexplainable.  Just as mystery is part of lives so too must hukkim be part of our lives.    

I too am happy with my confused, uneasy soul.  And every time I pause to think, “Do I use the meat or milk utensil?” I am reminded that even the most ordinary of act of eating can sometimes affirm the mystery and give voice to what might forever remain my many, unanswered questions.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Infant Dies, and a Jewish Ritual of Birth Begins

An Infant Dies, and a Jewish Ritual of Birth Begins - NYTimes.com
Read this!  Nothing more need be said.  Every word of mine might undermine the article's power.  It should simply be read and appreciated.

Yitro Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion the Ten Commandments are revealed.   Rather than focus on their familiar words I prefer to focus on the verse that follows.  “And the people saw the thunder—ro-eem et hakolot.”  How could they see the thunder?

There are two possible explanations.  1. Anything is possible because the Mount Sinai experience is a miracle.  But this is too easy an explanation.  And besides, there would not be much to discuss if I followed this line of reasoning.  2. In such an extraordinary experience the senses are overwhelmed and play tricks on you.  This is analogous to smells that sometimes awaken long since suppressed memories.

Neither of these reasons explore the meaning of seeing the thunder.  A Hasidic teaching suggests a better line of reasoning:  “What they heard on Mount Sinai they later saw translated into action in their homes, in the way they lived and in their behavior.  What they heard they later saw: the spirit of the Sabbath, the spirit of kosher food, the spirit of purity. They saw the sound.  Often, sound remains that and no more.  There are people who hear but never see; there is nothing in their daily behavior which gives evidence of the Torah which they heard.”

This is a beautiful explanation.  We must make what we hear, seen.  In other words, taking a teaching to heart is to make it visible.  It is to translate a teaching into action.

Judaism is skeptical about feelings.  This does not mean that it dislikes feelings.  Love is of course a very good thing, and its opposite, coveting is bad.  But Judaism refuses to rely on feelings.  It trusts instead actions.  It relies on what can be seen, not what is felt.

This is why “You shall not covet” is transformed into “Don’t steal.”  This is also why the tradition frames love within the holiness of marriage.  We build laws of actions around feelings.  We wrap our feelings with to do lists.

This is also why Judaism does not believe that a gift is tainted even if it is given for the wrong reason.  Tzedakah is not always given with a full heart.  It could be given because of a tax break or even to accumulate prestige.  The issue is not the feeling of the giver but the needs of the recipient.

Recently I asked my students these questions.  Who does the better act?  Two people of equal means are asked for a tzedakah donation of $200.  The beggar explains that it is for the purpose of buying winter coats so his family might better survive winter’s cold.  One person is moved to tears and gives $100.  The other is gruff and angry but grudgingly gives $200.  Who does the better act?  Our tradition says that the person who gave $200 does the better act.  Our students always answer that it is the person who gives with a full heart.  But it is about the needs of the recipient.  It is not about the feelings of the giver.

The ideal of course is to give the right amount with the right feeling.  But if you have to choose between feelings and actions, Judaism always chooses actions.  It trusts what can be seen, not what is felt.

Here is one of my favorite questions to ask our students.  I first learned it from Dennis Prager.  Your pet dog is drowning in a lake.  A complete stranger is also drowning there.  You can only save one.  Who do you save?  The Jewish answer is that you save the person, even if he or she is a stranger.

Our students always answer, “My dog,” after they first try to change the scenario.  “I would jump in and throw a life jacket to the other at the same time.”  When I say that most people don’t usually carry a life jacket with them and insist that they make a choice, they say, “My dog because my dog is a part of my family.”  One student recently added, “Maybe the person is really mean.”  In this student’s world, dogs are always nice—and I presume, people are unfortunately mean.

I understand our students’ responses.  Their world is built on relationships and family.  But Judaism believes that human life is more sacred than animals’.  So if you have to choose between the two you save the human life.  That is all there is to it.

And this is why feelings are not to be trusted.  We rely on actions.  You can accumulate many positive and altruistic feelings during a lifetime but to be righteous is a matter of piling up positive actions.

In next week’s Torah portion we read something that adds more force to this week’s and our current discussion.  The people respond to God’s commandments on Mount Sinai with the words, “Naaseh v’nishmah—All that God has said we will do and we will hear.”  First we do then we hear.

When we do, we hear.  You can only see the thunder when you transform your feelings into action. That is the meaning of the people seeing the thunder.

And so I resolve to leave fewer ideas locked in my heart.  I resolve to bring as much as possible to my hands.  It is in the doing that miracles are to be found.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, details the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments.  It is these words that are emblazoned on the walls of many sanctuaries. 

“I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods beside Me.  You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  Remember the Sabbath day.  Honor your father and mother.  You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.   You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”  (Exodus 20)

The most interesting of verses however, immediately follows the Ten Comandments: “All the people saw the thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”  The revelation at Mount Sinai was accompanied by many miracles and wonders. 

But how could the people see thunder?  The first answer is that the event was so miraculous that the revelation defied reason.  God could make the people see what is normally only heard.  A second explanation is that the experience overwhelmed human senses.  A powerful experience sometimes confuses the senses in the same way that a smell can trigger a memory and bring tears.  Still I question: what is the meaning of seeing thunder?

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rubinstein, a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, writes: “What they heard on Mount Sinai they later saw translated into action in their homes, in the way they lived and in their behavior.  What they heard they later saw: the spirit of the Sabbath, the spirit of kosher food, the spirit of purity. They saw the sound.  Often, sound remains that that and no more.  There are people who hear but never see; there is nothing in their daily behavior which gives evidence of the Torah which they heard.”

Every time we live by the words of our tradition, every time we live by the words of the Torah, we see the thunder.  The miraculous is in our hands!  Miracles are not about quaking mountains and booming voices.  They are instead within our grasp.  It is as simple as transforming feelings into action.

Judaism often, if not always, seeks to translate feelings into action.  In fact the Ten Commandment’s coveting is understood by the tradition as stealing property.  Commandment eight is then re-imagined as stealing a person, namely kidnapping.  Our tradition measures people by what they do rather than what they profess, what they perform rather than what they feel.  Judaism is uncomfortable with feelings.  It is skeptical about the heart.  It chooses instead to rely on the hands.

I wonder how many feelings and promises have failed to reach my hands.  How many good intentions have never worked their way out of my heart?  How many remain locked within?  And so I resolve—again and again, if Judaism is to be a force for good then it must leave the heart and reach out to the world!  Let us not be “people who hear but never see.”  Thunder can in fact be seen—each and every day, in each and every one of our lives.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Psalms 22-24

22. My God, my God
Why have You abandoned me;
why so far from delivering me
and from my anguished roaring?
My God,
I cry by day—You answer not;
by night, and have no respite.
According to the New Testament (Mark 15:34) Jesus invoked this opening verse when crucified on the cross.  It is a powerful opening for a prayer.  Anyone could have mouthed such words from the midst of their anguish and pain.  The psalmist often opens with such words but then concludes with words of praise.  The psalms open with pain and conclude with faith.  This psalm however is far longer on pain.  It concluding words are as follows:
Let all the end of the earth pay heed and turn
to the Lord,
and the peoples of all nations prostrate themselves before You;
for kingship is the Lord’s
and He rules the nations.
But the psalm began on a personal note of pain: why have You abandoned me?  It concludes with an impersonal note of faith.  Has faith indeed been restored?  Earlier the psalmist writes:
Because of You I offer praise in the great congregation;
I pay my vows in the presence of His worshippers.
Let the lowly eat and be satisfied;
let all who seek the Lord praise Him.
Always be of good cheer.
What began on a personal note concludes in a rather formulaic manner.  Again and again I find the psalmist speaking from the depths of personal trial and pain and then repeating rather mantra like statements of faith.  Yehuda Amichai writes of “the precision of pain and the blurriness of joy.”  Is pain indeed easier to speak about than joy?  Is faith more elusive than struggles and trials?

23. The most famous of all psalms.  I turn to Robert Alter’s new translation.  It is quoted here in full.
A David psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His names’ sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadows,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil.
my cup overflows.
It is difficult to interpret this psalm for it has a resonance beyond its exact translation and meaning.  How many times have we recited this at a funeral or shiva?  Here Alter translates the most famous of lines: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me…” differently.  I prefer his translation of the Hebrew.  A vale of death seems more apt than a valley of death, although the Hebrew is usually translated as valley and might be more fitting to the metaphor of God as a shepherd.  Regardless many people are attached to the King James translation.  There is a certain majesty found in the old English.  There is a certain comfort in reciting words that one memorized in grade school.  At funerals I notice a divide between the generations.  When there are many people in their seventies, educated in American schools in the 1950’s, I can invite the assembled crowd to recite the 23rd psalm in English.  The group will then recite the old English from memory.  There is great comfort in hearing the group reciting these words in unison.  Maybe we should teach our children to memorize this psalm as well.  Then they would be able to call upon it when they face loss.  But how many of those who recite these words from memory think of the meaning of the words?  There is a rhythm and music to the words.  Yet notice the faith of the psalm.  God is our shepherd.  Our greatest heroes like Moses and David were shepherds because shepherds tend to their flock but also know where the errant sheep wanders.  The shepherd cares for the flock as well as the individual.  God cares for the people and the individual in pain.  We march through the valley.  We do not remain there.  And one day our eyes will not be moistened by tears but our head by oil.  Redemption is our hope and prayer.  We will fill our cups and they will be brimming with joy.  Such is the faith of this most famous of psalms.  Again note how the pain is personal but the faith is in the impersonal third person.

24. The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds,
The world and its inhabitants….
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in His holy place?—
God is so high and mighty and lofty then no one can possibly stand near.  Such is the sense created by this opening.  But then we learn it is not beyond our reach.  It is as simple as living an honest life.  To live the ethical life is to ascend God’s holy mountain.
He who has clean hands a pure heart,
who has not taken a false oath by My life
or sworn deceitfully.

Beshalach

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, marks the beginning of the journey that will define the remainder of the Torah.  “So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”  (Exodus 13:18) The wandering begins.  The journey through the wilderness starts this week.

As the week draws to a close I want to reflect on the journey of Jews in America.  I am given to reflect about two Jewish women.  One brought the contemporary to Judaism.  The other brought Judaism to the contemporary.

On Sunday the great Jewish singer and songwriter, Debbie Friedman, died.  Debbie composed the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing that we sing each and every Friday night.  She wrote countless other prayers that we sing.  So many of her tunes have become a part of the American Jewish prayer experience that we often fail to acknowledge her authorship. 

Beginning in the 1970’s Debbie Friedman rewrote the music of traditional prayers, accompanying them to contemporary sounds.  She started what we now call Jewish prayer music.  Before her it never occurred to anyone to accompany our praying with the contemporary sounds of folk and rock.  I grew up singing her songs and still remember standing arm in arm with my youth group friends singing her version of the V’Ahavta.  She revolutionized Jewish prayer.  We owe her a great deal for beginning the journey we continue, of bringing the contemporary into our Jewish practice.

The other woman is Representative Gabrielle Giffords who remains in a coma after barely surviving an assassination attempt.  Our hearts are joined in reciting the Mi Shebeirach prayer for the wounded, especially those injured in the shooting, and for the families of those murdered: Federal District Judge John McCarthy Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, a young staff member of Giffords who was recently engaged, Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old born on 9-11, Dorwin Stoddard, Dorthy Murray and Phyllis Scheck.

Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish.   I suspect her Judaism played a part in the murderer’s motivation.  He for example listed antisemitic books and organizations as among his favorites.  Many people are not aware that Gifford’s Judaism figured prominently in her world outlook and approach to issues.  She once remarked:  “If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it.  Jewish women — by our tradition and by the way we were raised — have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done and pull people together to be successful.” 

On the issue of immigration and in particular migrant workers she was said to balance the need for security with the Torah’s teachings about reaching out to the stranger.  A trip to Israel in 2001 cemented her commitment to Judaism and Israel.  She said, “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from."

Born to a Jewish father and a Christian Scientist mother she would not be considered Jewish by traditional authorities.  But she brought Jewish sensibilities and teachings to contemporary concerns.  She found meaning in her Jewish faith.  For traditional authorities as well Debbie Friedman’s prayers would not be recognized as Jewish.  In my mind both women are shining of examples of what it means to be both Jewish and American, contemporary and informed by our tradition and faith.

In this week’s portion we also read the Song at the Sea, the beautiful poem sung after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds.  The Mi Chamocha prayer is taken from its verses.  There we read of the achievements of women and in particular an early leader.  “Then Miriam the prophetess… took a timbrel in her hand, all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.   And Miriam chanted for them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’” (Exodus 15:20-21)

We will continue singing.  We will continue wandering between the contemporary and our tradition.  Our journey never ends.  In two women we find guidance and inspiration.

May the memory and songs of Debbie Friedman continue to find their way into our hearts.  May Representative Gabrielle Giffords be blessed with refuah shleymah, complete healing, and may we continue to learn from her example.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Derekh Eretz

Founder of 'Civility Project' Calls It Quits - NYTimes.com
The way of the land, a euphemism for proper manners, has fallen out of practice in many circles.  Today's Times reports that the recent Civility Project is a bust.  The project was started last year by Mark DeMoss and Lanny Davis, a Republican and Democrat.  Last year they asked all governors, senators and representatives to sign the following pledge:
I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it.
Only three signed the pledge: Senator Joseph Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, Republican of Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of North Carolina.  DeMoss remarked:  "Whether or not there’s violence, whether or not incivility today is worse than it’s been in history, it’s all immaterial. It’s worse than it ought to be."  That is exactly the point.  Our uncivil discourse is not the cause of the near assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (may she soon be granted refuah shleymah) and the murder of six others (may their memories serve as a blessing).  The cause of this heinous act is Jared Lee Loughner and his ideology of hate and violence.  There are far too many in this world who believe that murder and terrorism are the answers.  If we can't keep such people from finding inspiration on the internet we certainly should keep them from too easily finding the tools of violence, in particular automatic weapons and explosives.  (I am thinking here of Timothy McVeigh y"s as well.)

On the other hand our inability to debate and disagree with each other leads only to our current inability to accomplish anything meaningful.  Republicans and Democrats are more interested in seeing each other fail than seeing America succeed.  Once we stop relishing in the failure of others and working instead towards our community's success will we achieve greatness.  Until then we will continue screaming at each other and every two years or four grabbing power from each other.  This nation's success is in the hands of all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bo Sermon

This Torah portion concludes the telling of the ten plagues.  The first seven are delineated in the previous portion: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils and hail.  In this week we read of locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born.  It is interesting and perhaps curious why the plagues are divided in this manner, but in doing so the rabbis certainly guaranteed that we would return to hear this week’s resounding conclusion.

There is also much discussion as to the purpose of the plagues.  Nowhere do we read that their purpose is to punish the Egyptians.  It is instead to motivate the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free.  In some commentaries we read that their purpose is to demonstrate God’s power to the Israelites.  But I don’t very much like this explanation.  Why would God want other human beings to suffer so that Israel can learn of God’s might?

Regardless our tradition has tempered the force of the plagues by insisting that whenever we retell them we lesson our joy.  In other words at every seder we remove a drop of wine from our kiddush cups so as to remove a measure of happiness.  In the most famous of retellings the midrash recounts how the angels sang and danced when the Egyptians were later drowned in the sea.  God silences their shouting of halleluyah with the exhortation: “My children are drowning!  How dare you sing praises!”

As I shared in my weekly email, the telling of the plagues is punctuated by the phrase, “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”  Pharaoh wavers back and forth between letting the people go and hardening his heart and not allowing the Israelites to go free.  I am not going to here explore the question of why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart but instead the meaning of this phrase.  What does it mean to harden our hearts?  To what do we harden our hearts?

The most obvious answer is that sometimes we harden our hearts to others.  We do so to strangers and even to those we love.  Everyone stands guilty of doing this.  Sometimes we become so wrapped up in our own lives and our own concerns that we forget others.  We harden our hearts to their needs, to their pains and even to their joys.  Sometimes we are unable to celebrate others joys and successes because we are so hardened by our own failings and trials. 

I think especially of the homeless who we often confront living in New York.  Do we walk by them in Times Square?  Do we step over them as we rush to catch the subway?  I remember once when we learned from a homeless person.  He was actually no longer homeless and working for an advocacy group.  When we asked him, “What was the worst part about being homeless?” he answered, “To be ignored.”  He could deal with the physical challenges of being hungry and even the cold, but the emotional was far more difficult.  People used to walk by him as if he was invisible, as if he did not exist.  This was the most difficult.  And this is hardening of the heart.

And what is the cause of this hardening of our hearts?  It can be ideology.  It can even be our beliefs.  Sometimes we become convinced of the rightness of our own opinions and then the world becomes invisible.  We only see ourselves and our ideas.  We fail to see others.  And so do we choose to be right and sometimes alone, or to be surrounded by others and then often our community?

Lately I have been thinking of an even more insidious hardening of our hearts.  It is the hardening of our hearts about the future.  We read article after article about the diminishing of America.  We read of states running out of money, of services being cut, of budgets being squeezed.  And our hearts have therefore become hardened.  We have become convinced that we will never be what we once were.  It is the decline of America.

But to be Jewish is to never lose hope in the future.  Think of the seder and its retelling of the plagues.  Even more importantly think of the seder and the singing of Next Year in Jerusalem.  Think of how many thousands of years we sang this song when there was not even a glimmer of a State of Israel.  Think of Elijah and his promise of bringing the messiah.  The messianic dream means that the future will be better than the present.  As Jews we must never lose sight of this dream.

When we allow our hearts to become hardened we become like Pharaoh.  We can like Pharaoh harden our hearts to others and harden our hearts to the future.  Lately I have been thinking that the latter might indeed be the more dangerous of the two.  To believe that the future cannot be better creeps into our hearts and coarsens our souls.

Our tradition reminds us each and every Saturday evening when we sing to Elijah that the future can be better, that the future will be better. We must never allow ideology to harden our hearts to others! We must never allow circumstance to harden our hearts to the future!

Debbie Friedman z"l

The singer and songwriter, Debbie Friedman, died early yesterday morning. More than anyone else she created the genre of Jewish music. It was she who in the early 1970's began matching traditional prayers to contemporary tunes. It was she who wrote the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing that we sing each and every Shabbat.  This new prayer and song has become so much a part of our liturgy that I dare not forget to recite it.  The Mi Shebeirach  has become so much a part of every Reform congregation's prayer service that it was included in the new siddur.  What so many of us have come to accept and expect as "normal" Jewish prayer was quite revolutionary when Debbie Friedman first began writing and singing.  Today there are many more Jewish songwriters.  Today we sing many of our prayers to contemporary tunes.  Today there are many singers and musicians who bring contemporary sounds and sensibilities to the Jewish prayer experience.  It is true that Debbie Friedman died too young.  It is also true that her legacy will continue well into the distant future.  I am grateful that she led the way in transforming our prayers.  As one of her more recent compositions, and Psalm 30, attests, "You turn my mourning into dancing..."  Kein y'hi ratzon!



To learn more about her legacy watch the below video.    



May her memory always serve as a blessing!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bo

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?