When we soften our hearts, we can let Gods power in

Shemot

Exodus 1:1-6:1

Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-29:23

Shemot begins the book of Exodus and opens the central narrative of the Torah — that is, the Israelites’ movement from slavery and oppression under Pharaoh to freedom and redemption under God.

When God appears to Moses at the burning bush and promises to rescue us from Egypt and bring us to the promised land of milk and honey, the hesitant Moses asks for God’s name. God’s reply, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” is usually translated “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.”

But I prefer the translation suggested by Rabbi Michael Lerner in his book “Jewish Renewal,” which expresses that God is the force that moves “what is” to “what ought to be,” the force that transcends all limits and makes for possibility.

We learn in this parshah that the God of the Exodus is this power of transformation, a God who hears our cries and brings us out of Egypt, Mitzrayim, which in Hebrew means “narrow place.” We also learn that there is a great obstacle to God’s transformative power. Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go free because of his “hard heart.” This hard heart will be mentioned 20 times over the next few weeks of Torah readings and will be described as “kaved,” “chazak” and “kasha” — heavy, strong and hard.

Despite the Ten Plagues that God will inflict on the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. In the eternal and universal story of the Exodus, the hard heart represents those Pharaoh-like qualities within us: lack of compassion, indifference to the suffering of others, arrogance, stubbornness, unwillingness to change our mind or our ways. These are the impediments to the Divine power of changing what is into what could be.

Pharaoh’s hard heart has another meaning, as well. When the Torah uses the word “kaved” (heavy) to refer to Pharaoh’s hard heart, it echoes Moses’ language at the burning bush when he begs God to make someone else God’s messenger of freedom. Moses feels inadequate to lead his people because he is “khaved-peh ukh’vad lashon,” heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue. The language suggests a connection between Pharaoh’s heaviness of heart and Moses’ heaviness of speech; God needs us to be vehicles for God’s redemptive power, but our “heaviness” prevents us from recognizing ourselves as God’s messengers. We are the vessels through which God transforms our world, but our hard-heartedness blocks us from doing God’s work.

Visionary leaders are those who are able to manifest God’s power of transformation, changing what is into what could be.

How auspicious that we read Parashat Shemot in the six-day span that includes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrtzeit, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

The imagery of the Exodus infused the speeches of Dr. King, and the God of the Exodus inspired a friendship and shared spirituality between King and Heschel. When Heschel first met King in 1963 at the Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, Heschel opened his speech by saying, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses � The outcome of that summit meeting has not yet come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed.”

In his last speech, the night before he was assassinated, King prophetically invoked the imagery of the Torah: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

Today, 41 years after King’s death, we prepare to inaugurate Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, a man who inspired our country with the hope and promise of changing what is into what could be.

As we read Parashat Shemot during this week of honoring these leaders, may we be inspired by the Torah and by their example to break through our own hard-heartedness to be vessels for God’s transformative power.

Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Rabbi Chai Levy