Parshat Bo

Torah Reading for Week of January 13-19, 2013

“Weighing One’s Heart”
By Rabbi J.B. Sacks, D.Min, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Pharaoh’s heart becomes the object of the reader’s attention in this week’s parasha. The Holy One is portrayed as “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. This surely propels readers to consider the kind of Deity who manipulates human beings into doing bad things. After all, if Pharaoh is so bad to begin with, why did the Holy One need to harden Pharaoh’s heart? An even more difficult problem comes with contemplation of the other possibility: if Pharaoh is inclined to negotiate and let the Israelites go, why would the Holy One harden Pharaoh’s heart at all? In either case, G-d in this drama appears as an unseemly character, manipulative and controlling.

However, G-d here does not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. The verb used for G-d’s action comes from the root k-v-d, literally meaning “to weigh.” So G-d does not “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, but gives it weight. What does this mean? From a spiritual perspective, we know that feelings are what can give a heart weight… Pharaoh has not been a person who can feel, for he has been absorbed in his own mystique, in his self-presentation as chief of the pantheon of Egyptian gods, in his constant vigilance to maintain power and to increase his profits through continued exploitation and oppression of his workers. His ability to care for others is woefully undernourished.

Once Pharaoh’s heart can feel, it still becomes a journey for him to actually do so. The root k-v-d also means “to honor, to respect.” Pharaoh cannot honor his own feelings, or, literally, give “weight” or gravity to them. It is difficult for the egocentric to enlarge the range of their emotional radar screen beyond the I. Pharaoh finally feels when his own son is swept up in the final plague, that of the death of the first-born, but the power of feeling overwhelms him, and he quickly reverts back to the more comfortable terrain of emptiness. Pope John II noted that “the worst prison would be a closed heart,” and Pharaoh personifies this syndrome.

Pharaoh’s story, then, becomes a morality tale of what happens when empty hearts remain empty. We see what happens, and we want to become anyone but that person. We resolve to avoid the prison that a closed heart imposes, and seek to fill it up. As we do so, we notice that we have more and more room for more and more feelings, and more and more kindness, as our hearts continue to fill. The paradox, of course, has been so ably expressed by the Italian poet, Antonio Porchia: “In a full heart there is room for everything, and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.”

The contemplative life requires more time and attention, and we each deserve it. When we give “weight” and “honor” to our own feelings, we can open our hearts to others—and can honor and respect others. The Torah teaches that the heart of oppression and exploitation begins when we bypass our human calling and spiritual need for reflection and contemplation. This is the real Egypt (mitzrayim, “narrow place”), and it is the root of all oppression and is appropriately epitomized by Pharaoh. When we start engaging in meditation and the life of the spirit, we begin to find a way out, an emotional exodus, that can lead all of us on the right path toward our spiritual Promised Land. So may it be for us this year, and every year.


Shabbat shalom.

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