June 20, 2024
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The Tyranny of the Heart

The story of Yetziat Mitzrayim and the miracles of Pesach showcase many different “dramas.” Of course, the primary narrative is the great theological milestone: God’s descent into history and His intervention in science and nature. For the first time in close to 2,500 years since His creation of our world, God’s presence was unmistakable—even to the most skeptical mind. Of course, Pesach also narrates a national drama—portraying the birth of a nation destined for historical mission. In addition to these storylines, the liberation from Egypt also highlights a drama of human psychology. After so many plagues and devastation, the “writing” is literally on the wall. Retaining the Jewish slaves could not possibly be more valuable than the very survival of the exalted Egyptian empire. Despite the overt miracles and despite being walloped by endless calamities, Pharaoh just can’t pull the trigger on the obvious “move” to discharge the Jews. He blockades his heart and dooms his entire empire.

His recalcitrance is astonishing just as it is absurd. Why doesn’t he listen? What possible emotional barriers does he erect in perpetuating this delusional narrative and ignoring the obvious? How does such a wise leader become so crippled with folly? How do these modes of emotional obstinacy reflect our own refusals to “listen” or reach the conclusions about our own lives that should seem “obvious”?

The first term employed by the Torah to describe Pharaoh’s emotional stubbornness is the term “leiv kasheh,” loosely translated as a “hard” or “stiff” heart. The Torah employs this metaphor at the outset of the story (Shemot 7:3) as God promises that He will stiffen (aksheh) Pharaoh’s heart. The emotions we sense enable us to be sensitive—sensitive to people, to ideas and even to ourselves. Emotionally aware people are sensitive to the emotions they feel within their own heart. Callousness or a “stiff” and insensate heart renders us indifferent to the world beyond us, apathetic to the experiences of others, or disinterested in morally corrective or ennobling ideas. This insensitivity, and insulation from the world around us, produces self-centered narratives. This is the condition of a “leiv kasheh,” of a stiff and insensitive heart.

In the extreme, a complete emotional disconnect can lead to psychopathic behavior: insensitivity to suffering and deviance in moral judgment. Pharoah exhibited psychopathic behavior by ignoring the suffering of millions while remaining unmoved by basic aspects of moral justice. Ultimately, in his psychopathic-fueled lunacy he even subjected his own first born to certain death rather than releasing his Jewish slaves.

While a hardened psychopath displays radical emotional insensitivity, we all struggle with lesser forms of emotional rigidity. We do sense suffering and we do encounter important moral ideas, but sometimes we choose to ignore them and block them from shaping our behavior or responses. This form of “voluntary disconnect” or cognitive dissonance is a more subtle but common form of a “leiv kasheh.” Oftentimes it seems more emotionally convenient to simply choose not to wrestle with ideas or moral challenges, to choose to ignore the long-term consequences of self-arbitrated lifestyles.

In a very poignant description of the Messianic era, Yechezkel (Chapter 36) depicts the restoration of a sensitive heart and the replacement of stone heart that had previously hampered religious growth. Stone-hearted dissonance will be replaced by fleshly sensitivity to God’s re-emergence in history. Our “leiv kasheh” will be softened!

Unlike the term “leiv kasheh” that is employed just once, a second term, “leiv chazak,” laces the entire Exodus story. Pharaoh had risen to dominance and his empire governed an entire planet. The irrigational resources of the Nile and the engineering skills to harness these natural reserves catapulted Egypt to world dominance as it shielded them from the ravaging famines of Sefer Bereishit. Sitting atop this global empire, Pharaoh was too cocky and arrogant to heed the warnings or petitions of Moshe, the lowly slave herdsman. Why should a man of his lofty stature care much about the hallucinatory ramblings of a laughable shepherd who spoke on behalf of a God that Pharaoh didn’t recognize. Pharaoh’s arrogance—born of his phenomenal success—fortified his heart against listening to anyone beneath his own station.

Interestingly, this term of “leiv chazak” is only applied to Pharaoh but not to his country-men. Some of the other terms describing Egyptian intransigence qualify both Pharaoh and the average Egyptian citizen. This phrase, however, describing the intransigence born of cockiness and hubris, is uniquely employed to describe Pharaoh.

To defeat this arrogant heart it was insufficient to merely overpower Pharaoh’s inflated ego. God demonstrated to Pharaoh that all the power and influence he had accumulated were delivered by God himself. Ultimately, Pharaoh’s authority would be inverted and manipulated, and he alone would be responsible for manically driving the Jews out of Egypt. From our standpoint, we were happy to exit calmly, baking our bread and organizing our caravans. Yet a panicky Pharaoh, in a complete state of terror, could not even grant us one more evening in his country. His royal authority ultimately is the engine that drives the rapid departure from Egypt!

Though not as arrogant as Pharaoh, we all become intoxicated with our own successes—be they personal or collective. Our hearts become too proud to listen to others or to notice the messages life provides. Hubris and self-contentment breed lives of swaggering overconfidence, and quickly we find ourselves in the locked in prisons of our own egotism. This prison is known as leiv chazak.

A third term describing Pharaoh s emotional failure is the phrase leiv kaved, which literally translates into a “heavy heart.” In fact, Chazal associate this term with a human liver, which in Hebrew is referred to as “kaved.” Indeed, the liver is one of the heaviest organs in the human body, in part because it is infused with blood from both an artery and a vein. It is also weighted down by the bile it produces. Furthermore, unlike the heart that functions as a pump, the liver filters out nutrients and toxins from the blood. Blood is rapidly and completely pumped through the heart but the nutrients and toxins that blood contains settle in the liver, lending it its heaviness. Effectively, according to the midrash, Pharaoh’s “heart” was transformed into a “liver,” or a “leiv kaved.” Oftentimes, in life we aren’t able to process important decisions not because we are insensitive or too prideful. Often, our hearts are too “full” or too preoccupied to process important ideas or to regard the emotional needs of others. Pharaoh was feverishly engaged in recovering from each makkah, busily trying to restore some semblance of political stability, all the while maintaining his oppressive tyranny of the Jews. He had precious little time to consider the impact of the makkot and wasn’t “settled” enough to acknowledge the obvious solution and liberate the Jews.

The modern world has heavied our hearts as well; we are all too busy, too rushed, and too preoccupied trying to keep pace with the frantic world surrounding us. Given this preoccupation, we rarely consider larger notions of spirit, identity and relationships. In effect, our “hearts” become “livers” in the same manner that Pharaoh’s did and we miss crucial opportunities for change and personal development.

Beyond preoccupation with the affairs of this world, our hearts are sometimes occupied by emotional baggage: unhealthy emotions that inhabit our hearts and leave little room for contemplation and growth. Toward the conclusion of the Exodus we sense Pharaoh s unbridled rage at Moshe, and this temporary insanity inhibits his ability to think clear-headedly and release the Jews. How often are our own hearts weighted down by unnecessary emotional baggage: anger, jealousy, pettiness, dread, selfishness, obsession, hurt or guilt. A heart heavied with emotional baggage is unable to perceive input or ideas and is incapable of sensing the emotional needs of the important people in our lives. Once again we fall into the emotional spiral of Pharaoh.

Pesach demands that we liberate ourselves from modern forms of slavery and attempt to transcend the developmental limits society sometimes handcuffs us with. Our emotional inner world is a vital landscape for this struggle and for personal emancipation.

Chag kasher v’samei’ach.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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