In the course of the Torash reading, we are told about Pharaoh’s repeated rejections of the Jew’s request to go free. Three different verbs are used in this week’s Torah portion centering on the plagues to indicate the hardening of the Pharoah’s heart: Kasha (k-sh-h), chazak (ch-z-k) and kaved (k-b-d). The three verbs all have different nuanced meanings: the first means ‘harden,’ the second, ‘strengthen,’ and the third, ‘make heavy.’
What do these terms mean? What are there also consequences of having a hardened heart?
I think that a hard heart is one which is closed. Physically, it does not let the blood flow freely; metaphorically, a heart that is spiritually hard, doesn’t allow the flow of emotions and ideas through, and is closed to any nuanced understanding of people and the world.
A heavy heart is one which is burdened by stress, pain, negative emotions and worry. When facing challenges, the heavy heart remains so weighted down that it cannot see the benefits of change and moving ahead. It is a heart that remains a slave to its own self because of its lack of ability to deal with the daily challenges of our lives.
The heart which is strongest is the truly balanced heart, where all four chambers work in unison to maximize the output. A strong heart is good; we need to have a heart which is strong in emotions, in beliefs and in commitment to ideals and values. But this commitment cannot be so strong that it clouds our openness to the suffering of others. Too strong a heart, and we may be insensitive and closed, ready only for battle. Instead, we need a strong heart which is at the same time understanding, compassionate and tolerant.
What is the proper response when we are in crisis? The balanced heart knows how to respond; not with insensitivity and not with bitterness, but with reason and love. The balanced heart responds in a unified way with all four chambers open and working toward a positive goal. We respond with the strong heart, but not the closed and heavy heart. This is what we need to model for our children when we respond to crisis.
The events this past week in Paris have painfully affected our hearts and souls. We are mourning with the families of the writers for Charlie Hebdo who stood up for the value of freedom of the press. We mourn with the family of the policewoman who was killed a mere two weeks after having joined the French police force to help protect its citizens. And we mourn with the families of Philippe Braham, Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, and Francois-Michel Saada who were targeted because they were Jews. Our hearts must remain strong and focused. While we understand that we are living in a world which is still hostile to us as Jews, we cannot let our hearts become hard nor heavy. We must never let our strength become the strength of hatred but we must strive to have a heart which is strong in its Jewish values, knowledge and connections to our people.
The lesson of Pharaoh’s heart is to avoid hardness and heaviness, and learn how to have balanced heart that is strong but not stubborn. As Jews, we may have had more than our share of challenges in history, but we must avoid the dangers of a heart that is too tough for it’s own good.