The themes and events of this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, might be considered a study in these words from contemporary novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver: “You can’t let your heart go bad… there’s always the chance you’ll want to use it later.” What happens when the human heart hardens and closes? What is the cost when our patience with the process of freedom and transformation frays and snaps? When we lose the ability to listen and to truly hear each other, what else do we lose?
In the opening verses of Vaera, God returns to Moses with the reminder that the time for the Israelites’ long-awaited liberation is near. God tells Moses to bring this message first to his people and then to the Pharaoh in Egypt. But Moses continues to balk at the idea that he could possibly be the right one to serve in this role. “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me!” (Exodus 6:30)
Moses remains so focused on his perceived inadequacy that it escapes him completely that the reason the Israelites don’t listen has nothing to do with his delivery. It has to do with the fact that the people had grown to tolerate their present circumstances. We might even argue that they had come to depend on them. Abject as slavery was, it provided a sense of routine and predictability. The Israelites understood what punishments were to be expected and what power struggles lay in wait. The idea of losing the only reality they knew, or of life getting worse before it stood a chance of getting better, was too frightening to contemplate.
When the Torah tells us that the Israelites “would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9), the Hebrew phrase used actually indicates that their souls were stunted. It was too risky to listen to words that might invite growth. As sure as Moses was that he could not speak, could not persuade, could not be an instrument of freedom for his people — that’s how blocked the Israelites’ auditory and spiritual channels are to his call.
To make matters even more complicated there is Pharaoh, who responds with fear and acquiescence each time a plague is let loose in Egypt. Again and again he promises to free the Israelites, only to harden his heart and go back on his word. The most fascinating change occurs halfway through the plagues. Where Pharaoh first responded with stubbornness of his own accord, God now hardens Pharaoh’s heart for him. Just as the Israelites were too far down the path of servitude to open their hearts, Pharaoh has allowed himself to descend to the point of no return. In giving up any ability to listen and freely choose a more generous response, he loses that ability for good.
At the center of this sacred drama still stands Moses, our most revered and important leader, who speaks with a stutter. He stands for that place inside each of us, littered with flaws and insecurities, that against all odds refuses to be stunted; that place that falters but reaches out anyway in a fractured and difficult world. Moses represents our will to find ways of connecting to hopefulness and change, then and now.
Living with open hearts is not for the faint of heart. Racial intolerance, divisiveness and violence seem to be around every corner. Then, too, we have our individual struggles and losses to contend with. In response, it is all too easy to feel immobilized and to build our defenses higher and higher. All these years later, Vaera asks: Can we possibly do better?
Can we lend an empathetic ear to others in their time of need, the kind of ear we ourselves long for? Can we bring an open mind to what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “the place we know we are right,” and allow ourselves to be moved? Might our hearts soften as we come to recognize and appreciate that there are still wonders big and small to behold in this life?
In taking such risks — the kind that Moses opened to, Pharaoh forsook, and the Israelites would stumble their way toward in time — we connect to the steadiness, resilience and empathy we most need to walk forward and meet the days to come.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.