by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
My last blog was intentionally controversial. The aim was to point out that people rarely seem capable of hearing, let alone absorbing another point of view. Some of my readers only read or misread what confirmed their previous standpoint. We seem conditioned to listen to what we want to hear. I get accused by the right of being left and by the left of being right. The truth is that I am neither. But why do we find it so hard to hear another point of view? Reading the relevant chapters of the Torah these weeks explains a great deal about how humans think.
The background is Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go. Looked at from his point of view, it would not have made any sense at all. He was the absolute ruler of the most powerful, and technologically advanced empire of his day. Why on earth would he pay any attention to two apparent nobodies, one a slave and the other a herdsman? All the more so, if freeing slaves, an integral part of the Egyptian economy, would damage Egypt’s commercial and financial interests. But if the Torah says that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, this surely implies that poor Pharaoh even had he wanted to change his mind could not, because God was forcing him.
The Torah uses three different words to describe this process of compulsion. The first word that comes in Chapter 7.1, is KaSHA אקשה. Literally, it means something hard. And it comes in the phrase. “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” The next word in Chapter 7.13, is HaZaK strong, אחזק, “And the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened (fortified).” The third word is in Chapter 8.11, and in this week’s reading Chapter 10.1 KaVdD, הכבדתי, heavy, “I made his heart heavy (or weighed down).”
Each of these words has different uses or meanings. KaSHA can mean hard, but it can also mean stubborn, After all the Israelites were referred to as “Stiff or stubborn necked people.” In Hebrew, a stiff neck is KaSHA. Similarly, HaZaK meaning strong in a physical sense can also mean strong-willed and strong as a virtue. And although KaVeD means heavy as in a heavy load or weighed down, it can also mean glory, respect, and dignity.
They all have meanings that can convey rising up and being lighter, better, or sinking and being worse. He or we are not compelled but given the opportunity to rise and to fall. Here these words clearly imply his downfall. When used here, they all mean that this man is not going to change his mind. But the reason he will not change his mind is not that he has no choice. It is because of his own stubbornness. His hard heart prevents him from seeing another point of view. He believes he is right regardless and is not going to change his mind. Even as he wilts under pressure, because he really believes he is right, he must not show weakness. Every time he begins to soften, he pulls himself back into his self-righteous cocoon. He must preserve his authority, protect his power.
In ancient Egyptian funeral rites, they weighed the heart of a dead Pharaoh in the process of embalming him, to see how it compared in the balance, to Maat. In Ancient Egypt Maat was the goddess of truth and justice. There were no legal codes in Egypt to compare with Hammurabi’s in Mesopotamia. Judges were expected to know the difference between good and bad and deliver a decision based on common sense, Maat. The heart was supposed to be the repository of all a person’s deeds. A heavy heart meant you were weighed down by your bad deeds. Hence the expression in its modern idiom of feeling regret. Having a heavy or hard heart really meant you were a moral failure. Perhaps the Hebrew word for truth, EMeT, comes from this word Maat.
So how do you deal with such a situation? If you cannot change his mind initially you set about slowly undermining all the certainties that have led to the conviction of being all-powerful. First, you undermine the advisors and inner circle and show their limitations. Then you attack their economy and the source of their wealth and communications. From the water to land, from livestock and humans, from airborne disasters to climatic catastrophe and the eclipse of light, everything points to human limitations. There is so much over which we do not control.
This whole narrative carries with it a message for our times too. One of the biggest problems I have had with religious authorities is how, so often, they think that they are absolutely right and must not waver or show weakness for fear that if they do, it will undermine their positions, weaken their authority, and the religion they represent. Saddest of all, they are worried about themselves and what others might think of them. This leads them to be blinded to unpredictable catastrophes like the Holocaust or to changing circumstances.
It also results, much more commonly, in them putting their personal egos and ambitions above the needs of ordinary, and particularly vulnerable human beings. I can’t begin to tell you how disgusted I am at Hassidic rabbis holding weddings for thousands, encouraging mass travel to these crowded events, totally regardless of the Covid19 situation. Or else relying on a Divine miracle, so confident are they in their supernatural powers.
And nothing to my mind illustrates the stubborn, hard, and heavy heart as much as politics where one side is absolutely right, and the other side is absolutely wrong. This is what causes witch hunts, inquisitions, crusades, and heaps more evil on top of what went before. We have too many Pharaohs in our societies and not enough examples of a Moses.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.