Do you have trouble heeding warnings? How many of us ignore the expiration dates on medications? How many of us regularly exceed the speed limit on the highway by more than 10 or even 20 miles an hour?
The zoo in Kirby, England paid visitors for articles stolen by the monkeys. But what puzzled them was the favorite item the animals snatched: eyeglasses. An investigation revealed the reason. The monkeys grabbed the glasses when visitors leaned over to read a small sign on the wall of the cage which said: “Beware! These monkeys steal spectacles.” (Leo Van Dolson, Vibrant Life)
What do you do when you see a sign that reads, “Wet paint, don’t touch”? I don’t know about you but I always feel compelled to see if it’s still wet.” However, not paying attention to warnings can be dangerous! Doctors have been warning us for years about taking care of our hearts. Rabbi Jack Reimer recently sent me the story of the father of his friend, Dr. Ron Wolfson—head of the Department of Jewish Education at the University of Judaism—that speaks strongly to this warning. Rabbi Reimer writes:
When Ron was 13 years old, he went to a class in Health Education in his school. He learned in that class that there is a substance called cholesterol, and that this substance can be very harmful to your health. He learned that cholesterol builds up in the arteries of the body, and that it forms a hard plaque that eventually clogs the arteries of the heart and prevents the blood from flowing. And he learned that if the cholesterol got thick enough, it could cause a heart attack that can kill you.
He asked the teacher: what are the main sources of cholesterol? And she told him: fatty meats, fried food, and smoking cigarettes.
When Dr. Wolfson heard that, he realized that this was exactly his father’s diet! His father worked long hard hours in a tense, high-pressure business. And his diet consisted of fatty meats, fried foods, and 4 packs of cigarettes every day. Ron loved his father, and so he decided to go on a campaign to try to persuade his father to change his diet.
One day, while his father was away at work, he put up warning signs all over the house, signs that had skulls and crossbones on them, and that said: “Smoking Kills!” or “Don’t Eat Your Heart Out!” or “You’re Too Young to Die!” When his father came home that night and saw the signs, he was furious. He tore the signs down, and he said to his son: “Leave me alone. I’ll eat what I want, and I will smoke when I want, and you mind your own business!”
Ron Wolfson says that that was the day when he learned that a heart can be hard in 2 ways. It can be hard physically, because of clogged arteries, and it can be hard spiritually, because of stubbornness. And he realized that his father was hard hearted in both senses. He refused to listen to his family or to his doctor. He kept on smoking 4 packs a day. He kept on eating the wrong kinds of food. And he kept on working long and hard hours. And sure enough, 10 years later, at the age of 53, Ron Wolfson’s father had a major heart attack.
But from that day on, Ron Wolfson’s father changed. He had refused to listen to his family. He had refused to listen to his doctor. But when he got a heart attack, he listened to his body. From the day he got out of the hospital, he worked less, he ate less, and he smoked less.
Today’s Torah reading speaks of another man who allowed his heart to harden—Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Moses asks Pharaoh—on behalf of Gd—to let the Jewish people go and Pharaoh refuses. In our parsha Gd then brings 7 plagues down upon Pharaoh and his people, and each time Pharaoh refuses to give in. Each time Pharaoh promises to surrender if only Gd will take away the plague, and then, as soon as the plague is removed, Pharaoh goes back to his old ways. This Pharaoh is one stubborn man! He’s more stubborn than Mr. Wolfson was by far! Ron Wolfson’s father learned his lesson from just one heart attack. Pharaoh had to suffer 10 plagues with his people before he got the idea that perhaps he ought to change.
One can understand Pharaoh’s stubbornness after experiencing one or 2 plagues. After all he thought he was a god. But after experiencing the turning of their drinking water to blood, the infestations of frogs and lice, the invasions of wild animals, the sickness of their cattle, the infestation of crippling boils and blisters, hail so heavy anyone outside was killed, swarms of locusts that ate all their produce, darkness so heavy they could not see…at what point should Pharaoh have said, “Enough, just go!” How could he allow his nation to become so devastated? How could he harden his heart in the face of such destruction again and again?
Perhaps the answer is that if you’re stubborn enough long enough, what happens is that you eventually lose the ability to change. Habit takes over, and it controls you. Perhaps that happened to Pharaoh. He started out stubborn, and eventually he became a prisoner of his own stubbornness.
But that’s not what happened to Ron Wolfson’s father! He took his heart attack for a wake-up call. And from that day on, he changed. He changed his diet and his work schedule. He gave up smoking. And by doing these things, he showed that he was not a prisoner of his stubbornness, but a free man, capable of change. And guess what? He lived to celebrate his 90th birthday!
I don’t know if Pharaoh lived to celebrate his 90th birthday or not. I doubt it. Jewish tradition (Mechilta Beshalach 2:6, Yalkut Shimoni Ex. 176) is divided whether or not he died at the Red Sea. Even if he survived in order to give a firsthand account of the miracles and wonders that Gd performed as one Midrash teaches, one can’t imagine that someone with such a hot temper like he had…someone who was as stubborn and as unbending and as unwilling to listen to the advice of anyone around him, as he was…could have lived to a very ripe old age. I imagine that he must have had a heart attack or died from some other disease at a fairly young age, because the stubbornness of a hard heart can do that to you.
So let me ask you: How hard is your heart? Physically, I know mine is not too hard these days because of the 20mg of Crestor I take every day. But emotionally and spiritually? Let’s do an emotional and spiritual EKG of sorts on our hearts by considering some of the ways we harden our hearts.
From a spiritual perspective, you harden your heart when you see clear evidence of Gd in the world and you don’t allow it to change you. The evidence is there, if you just open your eyes and your heart to see it. But if you ignore it, in some way, something profound will happen to you…you will experience the presence of Gd in your life. It happens to all of us. At that point you have a choice to make—do you soften your heart and allow Gd in or do you go through your life as if nothing has happened?
From an emotional perspective, you harden your heart when you are so consumed with anger and pain that you refuse to see why it is that the person who hurt you did what he/she did to you. And it is only that kind of insight that can help you find healing.
Hatred is an even more intense emotion that hardens the heart as we see in the words and actions of Islamic extremists like ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haran, etc. That’s why it’s virtually impossible to negotiate with them. Like Pharaoh of old, their hearts are so hardened they will not entertain anyone else’s point of view. I did read one interesting suggestion for France sent to me by friend in light of France’s vote against Israel in the UN Security Council a couple of weeks ago and in light of last week’s terror attacks. It was a suggested letter to the president of France:
Dear Mr. President,
The recent violence in Paris underscores the need for France to immediately engage in negotiations with French Muslims that will result in the creation of 2 states for 2 peoples, living side by side in peace, harmony and security, with Paris as a shared capital.
How else do we harden our hearts? We harden our hearts when we assume that we’re always right. We’re not always right and even when we are right we need to consider the pain we cause others. We must ask ourselves what’s more important: being right or having meaningful relationships with our loved ones?
Hearts can also become hardened when we suffer setbacks and disappointments. No one is immune to life’s trials. Yet, just as steel is forged by a blacksmith’s hammer, so, too, can we be strengthened by the trials we encounter. So when life is hard, don’t harden your heart. Open it and let Gd in,
So my advice to you and me today is to follow the example of Ron Wolfson’s father and not Pharaoh. And if we do, our hearts will be free of the spiritual cholesterol that hardens them and instead filled with Gd’s healing light. We will live longer and better. If you agree with this free medical advice that I have given you today, will you join with me, and say, Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis