Skip to main content

Don't Walk Away from the Heart

Joan Didion writes: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

The Talmud reports: “Rav and Shmuel disagree about the interpretation of the verse, ‘And there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ One says this means he was actually a new king, and one says this means that his decrees were transformed as if he were a new king.” (Sotah 11a)

It is a fascinating disagreement. One rabbi believes, as I had always thought, that it was in fact a new king who did not know about all the good Joseph did for Egypt. Perhaps he was not told. Or perhaps so many generations passed since Joseph’s death that the stories about his ingenuity were lost to Egyptian storytellers.

The other rabbi suggests that it was not so much about the forgetting of history, or more precisely the failure to teach history, but instead about the king’s character. The king, as rulers so often do, became enamored with his power, and grew more and more callous towards his subjects.

This disagreement makes all the difference in the world regarding how we view God. If it was a new king, and many years had passed, then one wonders why God waited hundreds of years to respond to the Israelites’ suffering. If it was the same king, then God did not wait but responded, more or less, as soon as the Israelites’ cries reached heaven.

This debate follows us into our own day. It may seem like God waits generations to respond to our suffering. In fact, God is waiting for the callousness to be removed from our hearts. God cries out, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6)

Once again, we gain insights about a person’s character. Each of us has the tendency to forget the good others do for us. Our hearts can become hardened towards others.

It is easier to imagine it was a new king who was never taught the good Joseph did. It is far more challenging to think that each of our hearts can turn as callous as Pharaoh’s.

Joan Didion again: “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.”

My destination will always be our Torah. My path will always involve trying to figure out what these ancient words mean.

Our hearts are the places we dare not walk away from.