Parashat Bo: The Significance of Hardening One’s Heart

We need a real leader. We must seek out those who are most humble. The ones without personal interests. The strong. The ones who are up to the task, who can hear and listen to the nation and its advisors, and aren’t closed off or just “spewing.”

Dr. Keren Kirshenbaum teaches in the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum

In Parashat Bo and the texts that precede and follow it, we read the story of the redemption of the people of Israel from Egypt. We’ll often note the repeated use of the notion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. “And Hashem said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh heart is heavy; he refuses to let the people go.’” (Parashat Va’era, Chapter 7, verse 14). Parashat Bo, too, begins with the verse: “Then Hashem said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, so that I may display these signs of Mine among them.”

Onkelos translates “heavy” into Aramaic as ityakar, a word that can be interpreted either, as Rashi suggests, as a derivative of koved, heaviness, as in Jethro’s words to Moses: “For this task is too heavy for you” (Exodus 18:18), or in the sense of kavod, honor, or haughtiness. That is to say that Pharaoh honors himself so much that he ends up suffering, and isn’t prepared to let the nation go.

One page 141 of his book, Studies on the Torah of Land of Israel, the late Saul Lieberman quotes an ancient poem written by the poet R. Yanay: “Foolish and heavy is his heart, far from knowledge, it is becoming like his liver, expelling and not absorbing”. Here, the poet explains the idea of “Pharaoh’s heavy heart” in the sense that his heart adopted the traits of another organ: the liver. This poet is alluding to Mishnat Terumot, Chapter 10, Mishna 11, which deals with mixing allowed and forbidden foods (within a discussion of terumah (tithes) and holin (produce that isn’t donated)). In this text, Mishnaic scholar Yohanan Ben Nuri states: “Liver renders food cooked with it in the same pot prohibited but is not prohibited itself, because while it does expel blood as it cooks, it does not absorb this blood again, since the blood diffuses only outward”. In other words, if non-kosher liver is cooked with any permitted foods, the liver causes the permitted food to become non-kosher, since it expels a lot of blood, and the taste of the blood is absorbed in the permitted food, rendering it forbidden. Conversely, if the liver is kosher, and was cooked with foods that are forbidden, or Terumah foods, which may not be eaten, the liver may be eaten, because it does not absorb taste, i.e. it does not assume the taste of other cooked foods.

The nature of the liver is that it only expels and does not absorb. This is what is meant by Pharaoh making his heart like his liver, so even though the heart does absorb, Pharaoh’s heart became closed off, like his liver. Thus, he was only capable of making himself heard, and not hearing others.

Saul Liberman mentions another midrash from Shemot Rabbah, chapter 89, verse 8: “When his liver grew angry, his heart also became heavy”. It is well-known that the trait associated with the liver is anger, as we read in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 61a and 61b: The sages taught that the kidneys advise, the heart understands, the tongue shapes the sounds that emerges from the mouth… and the liver becomes angry…”. Pharaoh’s rage prevents him from listening to his heart and understanding that he must release the Jewish people. He sticks to his guns, subjecting himself and his people to a string of disasters.

Consequently, we see that there are four interpretations of the word kaved, corresponding to Pharaoh’s four character traits:

The first is honor, etyakar, arrogance and haughtiness, echoed by his exclamation, “But Pharaoh said, “Who is Hashem that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know Hashem, nor will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2). The second is heaviness. Pharaoh couldn’t let his heart work, since he was heavy and paralyzed, succumbing to heaviness. The third is the comparison with the liver, an organ that can’t listen to its advisors when they speak to it. It is closed off from them, and can only make itself heard. The fourth is the liver, in the sense that the liver is associated with anger, reflecting the principle expressed by our sages – when a person is angry, all forms of diabolical forces dominate him.

Unlike Pharaoh, Moses, the shepherd of Israel who was the humblest of men, possessed the opposite character traits. Though he was “heavy of mouth, liver and tongue, more importantly, he was not heavy of heart, as Rabbi says in the Sayings of the Fathers, chapter 4, mishnah 20: “Don’t look at the jug, but rather, at what it contains.”

We need a real leader.  We must seek out those who are most humble. The ones without personal interests. The strong. The ones who are up to the task, who can hear and listen to the nation and its advisors, and aren’t closed off or just “spewing”. May the Almighty will it that such a leader is found. However, as we know, the generation gets the leader it deserves, so we must learn how to swallow (hear), and not just expel (speak). More listening and selfless love, less anger and haughtiness.


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