Beware of the “hardened heart”

Byline 4:00 PM Friday

There are six great “forests” in the 94, 189-square-mile region known as the Petrified Forest National Park of Northern Arizona. Virtually unknown until the late 1870’s, the 135-million-year-old “stone trees” had been killed by natural processes and deeply buried in mud and sand that contained silica-rich volcanic ash. The logs became petrified as the mineral, carried into the wood by ground water, eventually replaced the wood cells.  As the surrounding material eroded away, and the petrified logs and fragments and chips of varied colors became exposed. Its stone is of such hardness that it will scratch all but the hardest alloy steels.

It’s been said that the hardening of the heart is more serious than hardening of the arteries. Doesn’t this process describe  in detail what happens when our hearts become hardened?  This illustration takes us to theme of this week’s Torah portion. Pharaoh’s heart condition has puzzled many biblical scholars since ancient times. Simply stated: Why does God  prevent Pharaoh’s repentance?

Medieval rabbinic scholars suggest a variety of answers. For now we shall focus on only one exposition–Rashi. Rashi contends that Pharaoh alone is responsible for hardening his own heart. In fact, in the first five sets of plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and not God. This answer might suggest that the lost of personal freedom is not something that occurs overnight. Rather, each time Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites, his decision desensitizes his humanity. For all practical purposes Pharaoh is like an automaton, a body without a soul. In other words, with each successive plague, God strengthens Pharaoh’s resolve (i.e, “heart” or “will”) not to release the Israelites (Ibn Ezra)–however, the choice is always Pharaoh’s.

The heart is more than just a physical organ according to the Tanakh; it  is the source of human personhood. Without a heart, one can scarcely be considered “alive.” The heart not only thinks and feels, remembers and desires, but it also chooses a course of action. Its purity is always defined our choices. The heart is also part of the human psyche that has the unique ability to feel empathy for the Other. Repeatedly, the Torah warns us not to harden our hearts to the poor and indigent who cry out to God for help (Deut. 15:7–11):

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

Note how the biblical text stresses the theme of “brother.” We are of one human family regardless of race. Our collective “heart” is the index of our humanity.  However, when we deny our innate capacity to feel for our neighbor who is suffering, we lose  the most important that makes us human. In doing so, we also deny our brotherhood and sisterhood.  Isn’t this exactly what occurs in our biblical story about Pharaoh? Pharaoh’s choleric personality, which is driven by his intense desire to control and manipulate his people, comes with a hefty price. For Pharaoh, human beings are like mere bricks–persons bereft of human rights. This would explain why Pharaoh’s heart is so “hardened.”

According to Ben Sira,  a “hardened heart” can also mean a closed mind as well as someone who is embittered and calloused (Sirach 17:6). The heart is the source of one’s consciousness and of intelligent and free personality, the place of decision-making, where the Torah is mystically written (cf. Eze. 36:26-27) and where the mysterious actions of God take place. As always, the human heart is defined by the choices we make.  Heart is always the home of conscience.

The 18th century German philosopher Kant believed that God always speaks to the individual through the human conscience. The biblical writers of antiquity certainly would have concurred with Kant. When God speaks to the receptive heart, one cannot help but respond to the call of conscience. However, when the Divine speaks to an unresponsive heart, it hardens for the human conscience is silenced.  The biblical story about Pharaoh’s heart condition teaches us that people who feel that they must control everything they see, in the end become slaves to their own compulsion; in doing so, such unfortunate mortals lose all their remaining moral freedom.

From the earliest pages of the Exodus narrative we discover that human beings are not mere bricks but persons born with human rights. But is Pharaoh the only one who suffers from this plague? Apparently not. Pharaoh’s dysfunctional heart in some respects reflects the dysfunctional heart of his people.

Here is a Hassidic tale that reflects this point.  A Rebbe once read to his students the following verse, “They did not see one another, nor did any rise from his place for three days; but all the people of Israel had light where they dwelt”  (Exod. 10:23). The youngster asks his teacher, “Rebbe, why didn’t the  Egyptians use lanterns to see where they were going?” The Rebbe answered, ” The plague that affected the Egyptians was not a plague that effected the eyes, but rather  a darkness that affected the heart. Nobody cared for one another, they didn’t feel for one another, there was a complete disregard for the truth. Nobody responded to the hopelessness of their neighbors. That is why the plague of darkness was so powerful.

Is this a tale of our past? Hardly. Whenever tragedy strikes a nation, decent people have to step up to the plate and make a difference.

As we respond to the victims of Haiti, let the floodgates  of human compassion flow from the heart of all humanity and reveal a heart of flesh that is alive, and by doing so, create light in the midst of darkness and despair.

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