Last week, my husband Sam bought us a book about tidying up—and he is convinced that we can tidy up our home once and for all – discard our accumulations of detritus, keeping only what we love, finding a place for each beloved item and nothing else. Because he has faith that we can change. Finally. After all these years.
Also this past week, I co-officiated my second, and likely final, Jewish-Catholic wedding. Everyone was really happy with it–the bride, the groom, the parents, the aunts and uncles, the friends, the priest, everyone was happy… everyone except me.
I had discussed with the couple, and with the priest, two things that were important to me: first, that no one lie, that the Jew not be asked to make vows in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Second I had asked that everything that we Jews wouldn’t be familiar with be explained, just as I explain every part of the Jewish ceremony. This bride is from the Philippines and the wedding included numerous cultural traditions that I was unfamiliar with. They agreed to both of my requests.
So the wedding is now underway, and while the priest does not ask the Jew to take his vows in the name of the Trinity, he makes numerous blessings, not in the name of our common god, but in the name of the Trinity. No one explains the unity candle, the cord, the second veil, or the coins.
The priest, who has performed over 300 weddings, was really happy with the ceremony. He’d made the change about the vow, but could not generalize it to the blessings. I think he was on autopilot, set in his ways, and did not even consider looking over the rest of the ceremony to uncover moments to welcome the non-Catholics in the family.
And then I turned to this week’s torah portion, Vaera (and I appeared), the second parasha in the Book of Shemot/Exodus.
God tells Moses, before embarking on the plagues, that
וַֽאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה
And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 7:3)
Only 10 verses later, we read
וַֽיֶּֽחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָֹֽה:
And Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened and he did not listen to what God told him. (Ex. 7:13)
And then God tells Moses,
כָּבֵ֖ד לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה מֵאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלַּ֥ח הָעָֽם:
Pharaoh’s heart is heavy and he won’t send the people away. (Ex. 7:14)
These are the first of many times in this portion we read about Pharaoh’s heart hardening. God tells us that God will do the hardening.
Three words are used for the hardening, kasha (to make hard), khazak (to strengthen) and kaved (to make heavy, like a stone, or also to honor with someone’s weightiness and importance)… Kavod, as in God’s glory, comes from the same root…
It is useful to note that the root “kaved,” heavy, appears nine times—one fifth of its uses in all of Torah. The plague narrative is about trying to change the heavy, oppressive practices of an entrenched government that sees itself as all-powerful.
This heart hardening is both personal and political, as Pharaoh’s behavior is both intensely personal and very political.
The personal: think about the psychological slavery we keep ourselves in: addictions, depression, fear, thought patterns we can’t or won’t stop. This week I officiated shiva minyanim for a family whose husband, brother, stepfather, uncle, cousin and friend had killed himself. His sister told me that he believed he was predisposed to suicidal thoughts, and had become obsessed with Robin Williams, and his death. His thoughts kept turning to suicide, no matter how hard he tried, and he seems to have tried very hard for a very long time to find a softness in his heart. He finally gave in.
In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist, explores neurology and the choices we make. He defines mindsight as “a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds,” that allows us to make connections and forge neural pathways that changes the brain and how we react.
The book quite captivated me because it is akin to Mussar, the Jewish spiritual practice that teaches us to step back and explore our behavior in light of our texts and traditions.
The practices of Mussar and Mindsight share important insights. Both Jewish tradition and neuroscience show us that our nature or our genetic make up make it hard for us to overcome the millennia-old habits of flight or fright, or the fear of loss that propelled the building of the golden calf when Moses was late down the mountain. Change takes time and change is hard work that requires us to work consciously and mindfully every step of the way, to get past our reptilian brains. It is so easy to harden our hearts.
All of this returns to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Has that ever concerned you? If God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, how is that Pharaoh’s fault? How can we blame him?
Maimonides (1135-1204) had an answer to this, as told by R. David Hartman, z”l, one of the great teachers of our time: Maimonides taught that none of the biblical instances of God’s taking away someone’s freedom should be read literally. (But then, Maimonides did not think much, if any, of the bible should be taken literally.) These freedom removing instances, he wrote in his Mishneh Torah, (Hilchot Teshuva 6), were a result of each person’s own actions. He understood, back in the 12th century, that we create habits of behavior, which, when practiced over a long enough period of time, obliterate the possibility of change. So the more Pharaoh hardened his heart, the harder any empathy became.
Maimonides believed that God helped those who “come to purify themselves” – in the way God built the laws of nature, in the very essence of our nature. He taught that God structured our universe so that we humans would be driven to act righteously, or as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the universe is bent toward justice.” To Maimonides, God is in the very structure of human reason and nature. Once we set out on a path, for justice or our own selfish interests, and we make ourselves at home there, we become wired to keep on that path. This 12th century thinking is remarkably close to what neuroscience and modern psychology show.
Thus, Pharaoh, through his own habits, his ongoing refusal to let us go, created his own self-perpetuating reality, within the laws of nature. Pharaoh therefore is the antithesis of freedom, the embodiment of slavery of both himself and us.
Our behavior creates the neural pathways that determine how hard we have to work to become the people we could be. We know that people who become entrenched in addiction often have to hit bottom before they see a reason to change, and that change requires activity and commitment every single day, one day at a time.
And as we sit here, on the shabbat of Martin Luther King weekend, I think we have so many ways to look at how we can lift the kaved, the heaviness of our hearts, the lingering heaviness that makes change so hard. This year, 50 years after the march on Washington, we are again having a conversation about race and justice, and it is fraught with powerful feelings. Because racism is woven into the structure of American culture, just as antisemitism is woven into Western civilization, as we are seeing in Europe right now.
I want to offer a couple of examples of how racism has become institutionalized and talk a little about revision. I am now quoting Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist (1/10/15):
In 2012, an African-American detective in the New York City Police Department, Harold Thomas, hobbled from a nightclub to his car… Other police officers didn’t recognize him and, according to Thomas, slammed his head into his vehicle, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him… Thomas… admires the police force but says the racial bias is ingrained — caused by a small percentage of officers who “make everyone look bad.”
Reuters interviewed 25 African-American male police officers, some retired, in New York City and said all but one reported having been subjected to unwarranted incidents… Five said they had had guns pulled on them.
A 2010 New York State task force report on police-on-police shootings identified 14 officers around the country killed by fellow officers over the previous 15 years in mistaken identity shootings. Ten of the 14 were officers of color.
Then there’s a ProPublica investigation that found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.
I have a great respect for the police, and I have turned to them when I’ve needed them, and they have been kind to me. I appreciate that they put their lives on the line every day. So, to me, this behavior is part of institutional racism, systemic racism that is ingrained in the police department’s core. To me this speaks of people who have learned to perceive men of color especially as dangerous to them: they have to shoot first. That person is the Other, and the Other is scary, and is often not considered quite as equal as the people in our in group. It’s a reflex that is covered in fear.
And it is one sign of a hardened heart.
Did you know that of the 12 people killed in the Charlie Hebdo office, only one was a woman: the killers had let all the other women go? One of the murderers told Sigolène Vinson, who had been at the office that morning: “I’m not going to kill you because you’re a woman. We don’t kill women, but you must convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover yourself.” Then he cried out: “Allah hu Akbar.” The one woman killed, Elsa Cayat, was Jewish. What are the chances the killers did not kill her because she was Jewish? It seems the likeliest explanation for the chilling fact that of all the women on the scene, Cayat was the one singled out for murder. Did you know about this? Are you surprised?
Antisemitism is as old as Jews. It’s part of the fabric of the planet. It is surely due, in large part, to hardened hearts, hearts that were taught to feel a particular way, and the effort required to change it is monumental. Because change is monumental. Like last weekend’s priest, we live so much of our lives on autopilot—how else can we get through our lives? If we have to be conscious of our actions all the time, when we will have time to actually DO anything, after all?
But we have tools, if we choose to use them, mindsight—conscious reflection, meditation, prayer, to remember that each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We have mussar (if we choose to study it), to learn to notice our behavior, to turn toward choices that tip the arc of the universe toward good. We have our tradition, and Martin Luther King, to help us imagine a world in which we are judged – and we judge– by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin or the religion we practice or the tribe we were born into. Let us live as he urged us, and as our tradition urges us:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” (18 April 1959, Washington, DC)
May it be so.
 Todd Gitlin, Jewish Lives Do Matter—to Terrorists. January 13, 2015. tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/188236/gitlin-charlie-hebdo.
adele pickar says
Meredith, You have woven together a beautiful message born from our past and illustrating the painful and difficult paths of change. Thanks for sharing. Shabbat Shalom and love, Adele
Meredith Cahn says
Thank you, Adele. Shabbat shalom to you as well.
Marian Blanton says
Hearts and brains become “hard-wired”–for good or ill–as we live our lives. Many of us are clueless until, forced by age, we finally recognize lifetime patterns of behavior, including prejudices which have hardened our hearts. An antidote is to question ourselves whenever negativity threatens to motivate us.
Thanks for inspiring us again this week, dear Meredith.
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks for your thoughts, Marian.