Picture it! Egypt! 1200 (ish) BCE! Moshe comes to Paro, repeatedly, demanding in the name of G-d to, “Let my people go, that they may worship me!”Ex 17:16 and further. From the start, however, we are told that “I [G-d] will harden Paro’s heart.” This would at first seem to be a violation of free will, for, how can a man choose if G-d has changed his heart to not choose? The twelfth century torah scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhak (Rashi), offers up an interpretation. He tells us that at first, Paro was presented with the choice of letting b’nei yisroel (the children of Israel) go, lest Egypt suffer plagues. He refused to do so, and even said at points that he would and then turned on such a declaration to retain them. After he had chosen time and again to not make the choice proper for him and his people, as well as b’nei yisroel, he gave up his right to choose.
I think that we have all had moments in which we have done this. I know that I have had arguments in which the point of the issue didn’t even matter anymore, rather, the only thing that mattered was to be right–or in some cases just that the other person wasn’t. After a while of back and forth, its as if an external force takes over and there is no choice left, life just continues to happen with or without your input! I have seen the same thing happen time and again in regard to many different quarrels or misunderstandings, and the outcome is almost always devastating, and usually for both parties involved. Think of the bad divorce that you had, when you didn’t even want the house, car, or–G-d forbid this should be the case–kids, but you so wanted to show how badly you were hurting that you took the whole ship down with you, and didn’t even offer any lifeboats.
We must be very careful about hardening our hearts, in all circumstances. Sometimes, perhaps, we must temper them though. I once had a friend, who I would work for at times, we would work on cars, our families would hang out together; we had gotten pretty close. He and his wife divorced, and he started seeing a friend of mine from high school. Everything seemed great! They had a wonderful time together–or so it seemed at least–and eventually moved in together. We fell out of touch for a couple of years, as they had moved away from the area, but as far as we knew everything was fine with them. Now, this friend had been called many things, by many different people over the years, and I had always defended him, even if passively. My friend who he was seeing contacted us one day, after they had broken up. As it turned out, this “friend” of mine who I had so steadfastly defended on so many occasions, actually was crazy. Clinically crazy! He was suicidal, manipulative, and perhaps even homicidal. He ended up in prison, for something or other, and I have never heard from him again. This is not the first case in which a tempered heart–one that is not closed in apathy, but one which heeds the input of others–would have been very healthy.
On the other hand, I have had people whom others derided often, who have ended up being very good and close friends, and nothing like what others would have led me to believe if I had listened. So we see that this pendulum can swing either way. IF we harden our hearts to everyone, we will have no one to care for, and no one who cares for us. And even worse, doing something with frequency breeds habit in it. Perhaps this is the real lesson of G-d hardening Paro’s heart. If, for those of us who believe in G-d, we are to say that G-d bestows upon us the knowledge of right and wrong, we must say that it is by virtue of a relationship with the Creator that we are given this gift, after all, gifts aren’t given in any way shape or form without some kind of a relationship. But if we deny the blessing of warning, time and again, we might as well resign ourselves to failure–or, insanity, as is often said, “repeating action in expectation of different outcome is the definition of insanity.”
By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with “giving.” It is simple: in order to exercise a non-hardened heart, we must give. We must give of ourselves, our hearts, our souls, and our resources. The Shema, the central jewish prayer declaring the oneness of G-d, says this almost exactly. “And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all the goodness that is to you.” That last part is difficult to translate, but it has come to be taught by the rabbis that it refers to “all your monetary resources.” Now, this does not mean that you should give away everything you have, for if you do that you will have nothing more to give. We can give to others by supplying our own needs, so that we do not use the resources of those who need them more, and at the same time dedicate portions of “the goodness that is to us” to helping others. If you see a person with a sign out, why not give them the change in your pocket? Sure, they might use it to go and buy booze or drugs, this is always a possibility–then again, there is a possibility that you may do this with the majority of your paycheck! There is also the possibility, however, that they will use it to buy food, medicine, shelter, or even to help others. Now, perhaps there is something to be said for not giving over and over again, to the same person with a sob story which never changes. But one thing is almost certain: if you harden your heart and don’t give, before long you will find plenty of reasons not to give, even if your conscience is telling you you should.
And really, what is a few dollars anyway? In fact, I firmly believe that EVERYONE should set aside ten percent of their income (and money gifted them) to give to those in need. This needn’t be a homeless person, or even an official charity. How about paying for somebody’s groceries? When you are paying your utility bill and the person in front of you is trying to bargain with the company just to get the lights back on, put some money toward their account after they leave (so as not to embarrass them). Give of your time too. Take time out of your day to listen to that sob story, and don’t just offer a few coins, but give some kind words too. Take it from one who has been in a lot of tough places, not all sob stories are untrue. Life is hard sometimes!
So this is my request for world as we enter 2014 in the secular calendar: Give! I promise you, no matter how small the action seems, if we all do love G-d by loving our fellow man with “all your heart, and all your soul, and all the goodness that is to you,” we will make this world a better place.