This week’s Torah portion is Vaera, on of my personal favorites. And it is a favorite because of the relationship between the brothers Moses and Aaron and the way in which they help each other. Moses makes the excuse that he is a person that cannot speak well and so God sends his brother Aaron to help and to to speak for him. In fact he often acts for him as well. When Moses throws down his staff and it turns to a snake in front of Pharaoh, it is actually Aaron has the staff and throws it down. Now I have two brothers and I really enjoy our brotherly relationship and so I like this story of brothers helping one another.
But there is something else I want to focus on this week. There is something very curious about a particular word that is used to describe Pharaoh’s heart. In chapter 7, verse 14. There have been debates for hundreds of years among Christian scholars as to this: did God harden Pharaoh’s heart or did Pharaoh harden his own heart? According to Judaic Torah scholarship, it is both. Pharaoh began to harden his heart and so as punishment, God ramped up the process in order to show his glory and wonders. Now about that word glory.
In that chapter and verse there is a different word used to describe Pharaoh’s heart and it is not that it was hardened. If you are reading a Jewish bible published in English, it may use the word obstinate – that he became or made himself obstinate. In Hebrew it talks about his heart using the word heavy. The Hebrew word kavod means glory or honor, respect or dignity, but it also carries the connotation of weight. We talk about God’s glory or kavod, in terms of weight. There is a popular Christian song we sing at my church that has the line “chains break at the weight of your glory.” The worship leader that wrote that song clearly understood about the double meaning of the word kavod.
The word can also mean respect or honor so when someone does a good job, for example reading from the Torah, it is not unusual to hear someone say “kol hakavod” or all of the honor and respect to you, all of the glory.
Interesting about the word kavod with its connotations of glory and weight is that it is related to the word kaved. Hebrew doesn’t have vowels, it has 22 consonants, the vowels are implied so in Hebrew these two words would look identical. But kaved means liver so what could that mean? If we look at it in a more chasidic way of interpreting it, there is an explanation. They would say your heart is full of blood but it pumps it out to the rest of your body in contrast with the liver which is always full of blood.
Looking at it in this chasidic way being full of blood equates to being prideful and materialistic and self absorbed. We all have a heart that is filled with blood but is pumping and this is a metaphor for the relationship that we all need to have between the material and the spiritiual; to not be all consumed with materialism or things of the flesh as the apostle Paul might refer to it in the new testament.
Rather than Pharaoh pumping out pride and materialism, self absorption and obsession with the here and now, the physical, he is holding it all in. He is acting like a liver rather than like a heart. We can all be consumed and it can make our hearts heavy. Are you pumping out those things? We all live in the physical world, taking in those influences around us but are we then expelling them from our lives in favor of the spiritual? This is something important to think about.
As to that generations long debate among Christians about Pharaoh’s heart, well it may not be the most satisfying answer and it means that neither side wins, but I kind of like that. There is something for everyone to learn in this portion.
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Shalom and Kol Tuv, all the best.