Our portion this week covers a significant series of moments. Moses claims that he is not fit to confront Pharaoh as he is of “impeded speech” ([6:12]). We have the story of those first confrontations between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh and the portion ends with the first of the plagues. We have the off and on negotiations between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh that is often punctuated with the phrase that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened”. (7:3)
There is theological commentary on this phrase, which appeared last Shabbat in Exodus [4:21]. Sometimes different words are used for “hardened” or “stiffened”. There are discussions on the translations that has God saying that God did this on purpose to show God’s power, thus raising the question as to the role of free will: if God did this to Pharaoh, what free will did the ruler of Egypt have? I have no doubt that this will be a focus of many Torah study sessions this Shabbat.
But for our generation, let’s look at this concept. What does it mean to have a heart that is hardened? There is an obvious meaning in health, the “hardening” of arteries which impact health. But there is also a warning, I feel, of the danger of becoming immune to the challenges of the world, the concerns of others. We live in a time that this is possible. Between the challenges of the pandemic, isolation and fear; the challenges of watching the changing nature of the country, and the fear that this is the way life will be for a long time; it is easy to become “hardened” to the needs of others. It is too easy to just build a psycho-spiritual wall around out own souls. And we see people doing this.
Yet, there is a message from this portion. It is from the very first passage where God speaks to Moses and reveals that he was known to his ancestors by one name but now reveals his name to Moses as YHVH. (6:2,3) In classic Biblical scholarship, YHVH has the sense of compassion or mercy. What can this mean for us? It may be that the text is reminding us that, despite the realities of the current social situation, we still have the capacity to be compassionate, merciful and open to others. If we choose to close ourselves off from the world, we harden our own souls. If we choose to open our hearts to those in need, to reach out to others despite, or because of our current situation, then we open our hearts to deeds of kindness and mercy. And in choosing one, we model how we see our own self and how we choose to see our relationship to the Sacred.
Once again, the choice is ours!
Rabbi Richard F Address