reflection by Dr. Mira Neshama Niculescu
"Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart.”
These opening words of Parashat Bo exemplify one of the deepest existential questions posed in the Torah: free will.
The idea of God trapping Pharaoh by closing his heart has been widely commented upon. Yet, when looking closely at this motif, one sees that the Torah describes Pharaoh’s heart being stiff by itself, three times in row (Shemot 7.13-22, 9.12).
And only after that does our opening passuk come into play.
This didn’t remain unnoticed by the biblical reader.
For Maimonides, the latter is a consequence of the former, as “the sin becomes the punishment by preventing Teshuvah” (Mishnah Torah 6.3).
Quite a few centuries and countries apart, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory we recently honored, used this story as a parable showing how “evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold, short of a persistent, almost fanatical resistance.”
Likewise, Erich Fromm reminds us that if one “keeps on doing evil,” his heart “hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible.”
Such readings of the passuk save the idea of free will- and of the goodness of the God of Israel: if God closed Pharaoh’s heart, it wasn’t just because God wanted to display his own power. It was because Pharaoh did it to himself, first.
However, there might be another problem here: who would do this to themselves?
Well… perhaps each and every one of us.
Closing our hearts is an instinctive act. It mostly comes from fear, ignorance and pride, which are natural impulses. And we’ve all closed our hearts at various times in our lives, to greater or lesser extents.
The problem isn’t so much that it happens. The problem is when we are not even aware of it. When we don’t realize that the heart is closed, we become trapped in a prison of our own making.
Mindfulness practice helps prevent such a self-setup. When we practice being aware of what is happening within us, chances are, we’re going to be less stiff. Then, we will be less susceptible to the traps of our own patterns.
As we open and acknowledge what is, the heart can soften. Then, whether we are slaves or kings, we can be truly free.