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Writing on Sand and Stone

Make up your mind Pharaoh. First you don’t want to let the people go. Then you decide to let them go. And then you change your mind again, and won’t let them go. Finally, you let them go. This back and forth is punctuated by the verse, “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 10) 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?

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz offers the following commentary. This phrase, he writes, hints at a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” The rebbe continues. 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 clear. Writing on a stone is like someone who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it. Writing on sand, on the other hand, can be compared to person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages. He found it hard to understand, and he forgets easily. Immediately after he said, “Let the people go,” 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 not only for Pharaoh, but for each and every one of us. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that could be written on stone and 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 learning lessons that will last a lifetime?

What do we write on sand?

What do we engrave on stone?