In the book of Exodus that we are currently reading in the Torah in synagogues around the world, we grapple with the famous phrase that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” (Exodus 9:12). This creates a moral dilemma; how can we blame Pharaoh if God took away his free will? Scholars have pointed out that God only does this after Pharaoh hardens his own heart five times. Rabbi Simon ben Lakish is quoted in Exodus Rabbah, a collection of Midrash: “Since God sent [the opportunity for repentance and doing the right thing] five times to him and he sent no notice, God then said, ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own…. So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God.’”
The story of the Exodus is eternally relevant. In our modern times, our hearts get hardened by the news, by the overload, by the powerlessness we may feel. We get a constant feed of news, of things we can’t do much to solve. The continual headlines may make us want to shut down or “change the channel.” We all need a break sometimes, but becoming Pharaoh-like and hardening our hearts to suffering is not the Jewish way.
At a recent Shabbat service my congregation discussed many ways to keep our hearts open when we read distressing news: by supporting worthwhile organizations, participating in community service activities, or simply “doing something kind for the next person you meet.” A doctor who was present shared about the benefits of mindfulness meditation and especially of friendship and community for well being. We can balance our news consumption with more positive sources and take small actions for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. As taught in the Jewish wisdom book Pirke Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Here’s a meditation that I shared that you might want to try when you want to create a softer, more compassionate heart:
Focus on your breath (neshimah In Hebrew) to connect to your soul (Neshamah).
Breathe into your heart …You may want to put your hand gently on your heart
Consider a painful situation in the world where you have closed your heart to protect yourself.
Send a loving message, a blessing from your heart to those involved: May they be relieved, be well, be safe.
Send yourself a loving message, too: May I be well, be at ease. May I find my way to serve and help someone near me or far away.
Focus again on your breathing for a while.
Allow your heart to feel open and compassionate.
As you go about your day, be open to opportunities to connect with and help others.