One of the key moral dilemmas in Parshat Vaera (Ex. 6:2-9:35) is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Though Pharaoh hardens his own heart at first, ultimately God is the one who causes his heart to be hardened. Many commentators have dealt the this problem, namely how could God have hardened Pharaoh’s heart? How could God take away Pharaoh’s choice?

One answer perhaps comes through a teaching of the Sefat Emet about the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which was taught to me by Rabbi Michael Balinsky. The Sefat Emet carefully reads the language of the story, and concludes that God actually took away Joseph’s free choice in that encounter, such that Joseph did not have to hesitate at the moment of temptation but rather fled the scene. Though the Sefat Emet probably goes a bit farther than me, I would argue that what he means for us is that there are moments when the choice before us is so clear that our will and that of God are aligned, there is no distance. In the case of Pharaoh, however, just the opposite is true: his heart has become so hardened that he no longer can make his own choices, and he continually chooses to do wrong.

The Hebrew phrase for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart stems from the root K-B-D, kaved, which means heavy or weighty. In other contexts it connotes honor, because of the weightiness of ceremony or station. Avivah Zornberg, in her book Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture, writes that Pharaoh is the “king of heaviness, whose heart continually grows heavier,” and who therefore becomes ever more oppressive even as he is punished. He simply can’t stop his heart.

Contrast this with King Solomon, about whom I wrote a few months ago. As a young boy who just assumed the throne, Solomon asks for a lev shomeah, a listening heart. Solomon seeks a heart that is open, not closed; loving, not hating; listening, not shutting out the world. In this he is the polar opposite of Pharaoh.

Much has been made this week of our new president’s language about openness and listening and transparency. And I myself, in the post referenced above, have hoped that he can be something of a King Solomon. (This is not meant to imply, by the way, that the previous president should be compared to Pharaoh.) As we enter a world of manifold problems and challenges, of Gordian knots all around, the contrast between Pharaoh and Solomon reminds us that the beginning of finding wisdom and making the world better begins with opening our hearts to the voice of holiness within one another and ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

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