“And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened…” (Ex 7:22)
This week’s parashah continues the story of the Exodus and the dramatic confrontation between God and Pharaoh. It is a story of pain and suffering that multiplies as the oppressor becomes the victim of his own designs. And the root of it all? The hardening of the heart.
Refusing to see the humanity of the children of Israel. Branding them as other. Seeing their success as a threat. Begrudging them their very existence. These are the workings of the Pharaoh’s heart as it closed and stiffened. It came at a cost, not just to the Israelites who were oppressed, but also to the Pharaoh and his people. For the hardness of his heart brought plagues upon all of Egypt.
A heart that is hard is like dry land, says Professor Omid Safi. Nothing good can grow there. Life cannot be nourished there. Its destiny is death and destruction. But water can melt even stone. Arid ground can become verdant when softened by moisture. And tears can soften a hardened heart to make it fertile ground where love can grow.
On Pesach we dip greens in salt water to remember the tears our people shed when they were oppressed. Maybe, just maybe, it was those tears that saved us. Maybe it was those tears that softened our hearts and kept them open to feel for one another, to care for one another until redemption came. Maybe, just maybe, those tears were in themselves a form of redemption.
The Midrash tells us that our people were able to bear the back-breaking toil of slavery because we helped one another. When one Israelite completed her quota of bricks she would go and help the others. Such compassion only flows when hearts are open. Love cannot grow and hope cannot live amidst the harsh hardness of hate.
Our parashah tells us that in the depth of our suffering our people had a new experience of God. They encountered God as YHVH, as mercy, compassion, and love. In the heart of darkness, they saw light. As Pharaoh’s heart stiffened, our people’s hearts remained soft and open and sensitive.
These are frightening times in America. We are so deeply divided, so mistrusting, so filled with hate for those we view as the other. Anger and rage are running rampant, violating even the most sacred precincts of our nation. We are outraged and feel wounded to the depths of our souls. At such a time it is easy to harden our hearts. Let us resist this impulse, choosing instead to be soft, open, and receptive to all that is sacred. Let love and compassion fill our hearts, leaving no room for hate. If we do, if we keep our hearts tender and sensitive, we will be at one with the heart of all being and we will experience the redeeming power of God’s love.