A tough mind and a tender heart
I spent the morning reading through the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayera. Every year I am stunned by the intertextual resonance as we delve into the book of Exodus and honor the legacy of such a tremendous spiritual leader in the liberation movements of our own time.
This morning, I was struck by a particular echo. In response to Moses' pleas to free the Israelites, Pharaoh's heart repeatedly hardens (Ex. 9:12, 35).
וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃
It is precisely this dangerous contraction that Dr. King spoke to when he delivered this sermon, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart (circa August 1959, Alabama). I invite you to read his wisdom in full.
In his sermon, Dr. King cautions us against the dangers of the soft mind which he characterizes as guided by fear -- fear of change and of difference. With an eery resonance to our own political moment, he writes: "We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.”
But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. He preaches: "Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached...The hardhearted person never truly loves...[and] lacks the capacity for genuine compassion...There are hardhearted and bitter individuals among us who would combat the opponent with physical violence and corroding hatred."
By way of conclusion, Dr. King writes: "[There is a way in] our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft-minded and the violence and the bitterness of the hard-hearted."
We learn from this week's parsha, that hardheartedness is the defining response of a Pharoah. We also know from personal experience, that hard-heartedness can be a protective measure in the face of so much suffering. While it serves us in some ways, the story of Exodus makes clear, it ultimately stands in the way of liberation.
In our own lifetimes, we too are called to cultivate a tough mind, seeking truth with clarity and discernment. And a tender heart, pursuing justice with love and compassion. May we each find the courage to look inside and discern where our work lies. And may have the wisdom to approach ourselves and each other with a spirit of nonviolence. In this way, may we continue the work of leaving the narrow places.
Looking forward to singing and learning with you this Shabbat.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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