With a Heavy Heart

No one starts life with a heavy heart, and no one knows that fact better than the parents and teachers of young children. In fact, it is one of the great challenges of these positions to know that it is in some way your role to help your child’s heart grow (appropriately) heavier. That is why, when I read the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the scene in which G-d hardens (or weighs down, more accurately) Pharoah’s heart really stood out.

:וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹֽתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ

And YHWH said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart and his servants’ heart heavy for the purpose of my setting these signs of mine among them.”

Exodus 10:1
Translation by Richard Elliott Friedman

During our Faculty Learning today we discussed this Pasuk (verse), and tried to understand why it is that we hold Pharoah accountable for his actions if G-d was altering his internal emotions. How is that free will? This question has been asked for millenia, and there are several rabbinic approaches. One is that if Pharoah’s heart was not already hardened, then G-d would not have hardened it further. Another idea is that G-d isn’t hardening his heart by interfering in specific moments, but rather placed Pharoah in a set of circumstances that led him to have a hard heart. Finally, it is also suggested that G-d was testing Pharoah – that if his heart was soft, then obeying G-d would have been simple and easy.

I’m interested in the idea that it is just life as usual that hardens our hearts to greater or lesser degrees based on environmental inputs: our culture, our family, our friends, our schools, our challenges, failures and successes. The degree to which our hearts are hard is actually a record of our lives.

So what is it that we wish for our children’s hearts? If they remained soft and completely open for their entire lives, then they’d be at a major disadvantage in navigating the world. If they harden completely, then they will never consider others, and never engage in the relationships that make life meaningful.

I think my own answer is that I wish for my children to have the tools that they need in order to know when to put up a shield and when to lower it. With whom they can be soft and open, and with whom they can be bravely vulnerable. I hope they learn to open their hearts to people who are not just like them. I hope that they surround themselves with others who care deeply about them, so that it is not always their job to protect themselves. Sometimes they will need to harden their hearts, and I hope that they learn how to do that, too, so that they can stand up for their beliefs in the face of conflict and challenges.

This Shabbat, try asking your children what makes their hearts heavy and what makes their hearts light, and try sharing some of your own answers to that question with them, too.

Shabbat Shalom,