As a parent, I constantly wrestle with how to use my heart. When responding to my child, do I respond with a “firm heart” in order to get my message across, especially when it involves my child’s safety? Or do I respond with a “soft heart,” with total compassion and understanding? In moments of high tension and power struggles, how do I know when to call upon different parts of my heart?
I might glean some advice from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era, where the phrases “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” are repeated from last week’s portion and, in total, occur nineteen times. Nineteen! We know these phrases must be important, then.
The first phrase – “Pharaoh hardened his heart” makes sense to me. It conveys the idea that Pharaoh had the free will to decide whether to continue the brutal treatment of the Israelites in slavery — or not. By ignoring Moses’ plea to “let the people go,” Pharaoh’s heart was firm, stiff, and uncompassionate. And the Israelites suffered as a result.
It’s the second phrase — “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” — that makes less sense to me. Of course, God is the speaker here. But doesn’t that pose a problem? Isn’t it a problem if God has a say in hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Does that mean that God was part of the ongoing slavery and acts of brutality that the Israelites experienced in Egypt? If so, what do we think of a God like this?
As a rabbi, I often wrestle with the theological challenge of balancing how God and humans are involved in acts of injustice and terror. Many people question “how could God let this happen?” while others attribute gun violence, terrorism, and other acts of hatred to human free will. I believe in a God that is just, so I, too, believe that in these cases, humans are at fault.
But then why would God say multiple times in the Torah, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”?
As it turns out, I am not alone with this tension. Many rabbinic commentators have wrestled with this very passage, too. Some try to explain that God was merely peripherally involved, in order to teach a lesson to the Israelites about God’s magnificent power. Other commentators saw the theological struggle of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and tried to “correct” the words of the Torah – ignoring the fact that God said “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and instead commenting on the importance of Pharaoh’s free will, putting the blame on him. But the words of the Torah have been there for centuries, so, with all due respect, who am I to correct them?
According to late 19th and early 20th century commentator Rabbi Moshe David Cassuto, the reason why the Torah says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” is because “every happening has a number of causes, and these causes, in turn, have other causes, and so on ad infinitum… the cause of all causes was the will of God, the Creator of the Ruler of the world.” Samuel David Luzzato (the “Shadal”), a 19th century Italian poet, gives a similar explanation as to why the Torah says that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart. He says: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since God is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by God.”
What I take away from these two explanations is the idea that all of our actions, in some way, are connected back to the Divine. We have the free will to make decisions on our own. At the same time, those decisions may be “influenced” in some way by our relationship with God. Will we ignore God’s holiness and respond only from a place of defensiveness or judgment? Or, will our decisions be guided by the holy, divine qualities of a loving God? To what degree will God be part of how we exercise our hearts?
I’ve realized as a parent that when I respond to my child, it’s not about whether my heart is “firm” or whether it’s “soft.” It’s whether my response, in either case, comes from a Godly place. It’s easy to invoke God’s holiness when I respond with a soft heart. In cases like this, I emulate God’s love as the ultimate Holy Parent. But it’s a little more difficult to call upon the best in myself in a moment of heightened stress or anxiety. Even when my heart is firm, like when I discipline my child, I must still do so as if it’s an act of divine love. Because ultimately…it is.
Let us use our free will, just as God intended. But when we do, let us also be certain to exercise the Godliness of our hearts.