How good are you at heeding warnings? Do you ignore the expiration dates on medications? Do you 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.” (https://bible.org/illustration/monkey-thieves)
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 tells a story about Dr. Ron Wolfson—author of Relational Judaism—that speaks strongly to this warning:
When Ron was 13 years old, he went to a class in Health Education. He learned about cholesterol and how it can form a hard plaque that clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks. He also learned that it forms from fatty meats, fried food, and smoking cigarettes.
When Ron heard this, he realized that this was exactly his father’s diet—fatty meats, fried foods, and 4 packs of cigarettes a day! He then started a campaign 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 that had skulls and crossbones on them 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 said: “Leave me alone. I’ll eat what I want, and I will smoke when I want. You mind your own business!”
Dr. 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 ways. And sure enough, 10 years later, at the age of 53, Dr. Wolfson’s father had a major heart attack.
But from that day on he changed—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 today’s Torah reading Gd then brings 7 plagues 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 Ron Wolfson’s father who learned his lesson from just one heart attack. Pharaoh had to suffer 10 plagues 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!”
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 controls you. Pharaoh started out stubborn, but he then became a prisoner of his own stubbornness.
That’s not what happened to Ron Wolfson’s father! He took his heart attack as a wake-up call and he changed. He changed his diet, his work schedule and gave up smoking. With this 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. 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 1st-hand account of Gd’s wonders as one Midrash has it, one can’t imagine that someone with such a hot temper, someone who was as stubborn and as unbending and unwilling to listen to the advice of anyone around him as he was, could have lived to a very ripe old age. 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. Everyone experiences Gdly moments from time to time when Gd helps us in miraculous ways. If you don’t ignore it, you will experience the presence of Gd in your life. At that point you have a choice to make—do you soften your heart and allow Gd in or do you harden your heart and go through 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. You’re hurt; why should you care about what happened to the one who hurt you? But it’s only with this kind of insight that you can 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, or Iran’s mullahs. 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 read an interesting suggestion for France in light of one of her many votes against Israel in the UN Security Council, and in light of recent 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?
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 and your love out.
My friends, let’s follow the example of Ron Wolfson’s father and not Pharaoh by opening our hearts to the love and advice of others. And if we do, our hearts will be free of the spiritual cholesterol that hardens them and instead be filled with Gd’s healing light. Then, no doubt, we will live longer and better. Amen!