Divine Sources of Heart Hardening

The Jewish holy week of Passover began this year at sundown, Mon Apr 14. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 22. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th plague, when Yahweh killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

Before any of the plagues, Yahweh said to Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”

After the sixth plague (boils), we’re told “Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”

After the seventh plague (thunder and hail), Yahweh tells Moses, “I have hardened his heart.”

Three more times, after the eighth plague (locusts), after the ninth plague (darkness), and after the warning about the tenth plague, each time the same language occurs: “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

Isn’t that interesting? Why would Yahweh do that? There are a couple places that say Pharaoh hardened his heart, and a few other times it says Pharaoh’s heart hardened, without saying who hardened it. But the predominate message is Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart. What do you make of that?

Even when our hearts harden, this, too, is the playing out of the divine. I know the temptation is to add the word, “plan,” and say, “It’s part of the divine plan.” Especially in the context of the Passover narrative, it might seem it's all part of a big plan. That’s not how I see it.

The divine does not scheme and plan, but it does unfold, develop. It unfolds like natural evolution. Evolution did not begin with a plan in mind for what species were to be created. It began with infinite possibilities, most of which never happened, and most of those which did are now extinct. It’s an utterly unpredictable process – yet it does, overall, tend toward greater diversity and greater complexity: more and more complex creatures living in a more and more complex balance – or, we might say, harmony.

I see the divine as playing out in this same way: unplanned, and with many dead-ends, yet with each move, hinting at possibilities for a greater harmony.

“Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” When has your heart hardened? Did you make a conscious and rational calculation to harden it, or did you notice, after the fact, that it had hardened without your intentional will -- as if on its own? I don't think I have ever consciously and deliberately decided, "I'm going to harden my heart now." But I have I sometimes noticed that my heart grew hard. Habit -- in particular, the self-protective habits accumulated over the years -- overrode the inner voice of compassion. There is a place for choice, and that place is in choosing to begin the discipline of cultivating new habits and skills. This takes a while. In the heat of a given moment, I won't hear the voice of compassion unless I've put in the time developing the habit and skill of hearkening to what compassion says.

Other factors include fatigue and stress. When I'm well-rested and relaxed, I'm more likely to be open-hearted and compassionate. I'm more able to be flexible and see things in a new way. When I'm tired and stressed, I have a narrow focus on what I want, and how I want to get it. Rested and calm, I'm open to a wider variety of goals or purposes, and a wider variety of strategies for realizing them. Perhaps Yahweh hardened Pharaoh's heart by making him tired and stressed.

Fatigue, stress, and the undevelopment of skills of compassion are all the playing out of the divine -- they happen when conditions are such as to bring them about. When I notice hardening in others’ hearts, if I understand it as simply the product of holy conditions, it helps soften my heart.

Our current Pharaoh, it could be said, has a hard heart. But we don’t have to let that harden our hearts toward him or his supporters. With his, or any, hard heart, we can choose the route of compassion. It might be hard to make that choice, but it gets easier with practice. With practice our thoughts more quickly and and easily go to the recognition of others' suffering, and that their suffering echoes our own.

Yes, sometimes we need to extricate ourselves from a situation. Yet even when it’s clearly time for “Exit, Us,” we can do so without blame, and with compassion.

Passover and Easter both commemorate a waking up to new possibilities -- liberation and transformation.

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