Making Pharaoh’s heart heavy, making it “kaved”, (Hebrew root letters k’v’d) God sets in motion the plagues that will be visited upon Egypt. By making Pharaoh’s heart heavy, Pharaoh can’t see God and God’s power and oneness, foolishly maintaining his own version of himself, that he is the god of Egypt, king of all he sees. His heart becomes closed and heavy, laden with anger, with no room for compassion.
And, as we know from our years of sitting at Passover Seders, the ten plagues ensue, wreaking havoc upon the Egyptian land and its people. Poisoned water, frogs, lice, wild animals, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death. Ultimately, Pharaoh’s heavy heart proved heavy as a stone. He sank into the Nile, drowned with the rest of his army as the Israelites escaped across the water.
I have spent the last few days among people who bring great joy and do great work in the Jewish world and the world beyond. The Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Conference has been taking place in the spot on the globe known as Boulder CO, and it has been an exhilarating week. The theme of their conference, and indeed much of their rabbinate, involves Tikkun Olam – repairing a broken world. Passion and promise, hope and faith guide their individual spiritual journeys and their communal focus. I heard Ruth Messinger, from American Jewish World Service, speak about her work. There is so much to do, all around the world. The sheer number of plagues on the land, on the spirit, on the very bodies of those who are the least protected and the most vulnerable can destroy any semblance of optimism, no matter how dedicated you are.
Ms Messinger spoke about being overwhelmed with the work to be done. How is one not overwhelmed? How do you keep your heart from breaking at the pain and sadness, injustice and despair? How do you say no to those who desperately need help? How, in fact, do you keep yourself from falling into the kind of paralysis that keeps you from doing anything at all? What toll does that take on one’s heart?
In short, how do you harden your heart against it all? Is there a time when hardening your heart is actually necessary?
Pharaoh saw the devastation around him. He saw the pain and chaos on the land. Every time a plague ended, Pharaoh promised to let the Israelites go. But he neither acted, nor re-acted to what he saw.
He said no. He reverted back to how things were before, and then another plague descended. And another. Until his world was destroyed.
Compare that to the hearts of those who engage in Tikkun Olam. Their hearts also have “k’v’d”, kavod; here it means honor and respect. They see the devastation around them, but do the opposite of what Pharaoh did. Their hearts are hardened just enough to keep let them get up every morning and begin the work anew. Their hearts are open enough to let in the despair, and then devote the rest of the day to lessening it, both for those suffering, and themselves, too.
The heart that is merely “k’v’d”, heavy and hard, will sink. But the heart that has “k’v’d” , honor in it, will rise above the waves of hopelessness, and start ending the plagues.