D’var Torah: We are called to turn ‘hard hearts’ to compassion, love


Rabbi Josef Davidson


The heart is a muscle whose sole job it is to circulate blood through the bloodstream, bringing oxygen and nourishment to the cells of the body and then removing carbon dioxide and waste.

However, at times, the heart is viewed as the seat of emotions. The universal symbol for love is a heart, albeit not one shaped at all like the organ. When someone is described as “having heart,” it generally refers to that person’s faith or strength. To “have a heart” means to have compassion.

In our Torah portion, Va’era, the Pharaoh is described as “hardhearted,” a propensity that was enhanced by God, according to the text. To be hardhearted is the opposite of having heart.

It is described in the 1924 song “Hard Hearted Hannah  (The Vamp of Savannah)”:

“They call her hardhearted Hannah/ the vamp of Savannah/ the meanest gal in town/ Leather is tough/ but Hannah’s heart is tougher/  She’s a gal who loves to see men suffer/ to tease ’em and thrill ’em/ to torture and kill ’em/ is her delight/ … An evening spent with Hannah sitting on your knees/ is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs.”

To have a hard heart is to be mean, to be tough, to relish suffering, to be cold. One might add that it means to be indifferent to one’s fellow human beings, to lack empathy, even to be cruel.

The Pharaoh was all of these things. When first approached by Moses asking for permission for the Israelites to go and worship their God, Pharaoh’s reply was to lay an even heavier burden upon the enslaved people. And when the plagues were unleashed one after the other, he failed to show empathy even for his own people’s suffering. Until he and his family were touched by the last plague (about which we will read in next week’s Torah portion), his heart grew steadily harder.

The Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel also employed this term in describing the people of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. They have grown indifferent to the poor, to the homeless, to the hungry, to the stranger, to the defenseless. Their hearts had become like stone, cold and hard. They also foresaw the time when their hearts would become flesh, when the outer shell they had grown would be shed, and they would once again live according to the values of righteousness, loving kindness and compassion as promoted by the Torah.

Pharaoh’s lesson is that to be hardhearted is to fail at the task of being human. Physically, a hard heart, one in which the muscle is inflexible, ultimately fails to keep the body well oxygenated, nourished and toxin free.

Hardheartedness, metaphorically, has the same deleterious effects on society. Human beings are called to turn hard hearts, hearts that are cold, hearts of stone, into hearts of flesh, warm, caring, compassionate, empathic, respectful, caring and loving.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.