Pharaoh had a hard heart. The Torah tells us so in many different expressions.
God says: וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה
I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.
וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה
Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.
וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ
Pharaoh weighted his heart.
Pharaoh refused to concern his heart.
Every time, the Torah uses a different verb: Harden, stiffen, weighted, turned away. Every time, the Torah uses a different grammatical form: passive, active, reflexive, causative.
The distinctions are so significant that their similarity can be lost in translation. English versions will tell you that Pharaoh was stubborn, indifferent, callous. They will elide that in every one of these Hebrew idioms, the common word is Pharaoh’s heart.
We are supposed to imagine a heart that has long been bolted shut to cut himself off from the feelings of others. In the ancient world, the heart was considered the seat of all thoughts and feelings, much in the same way as we think of the mind today. A hardened heart is one that won’t permit any thoughts or feelings but one’s own.
That was Pharaoh. That is how the Torah describes Pharaoh every time it explains why he would not let the Israelites go. Pharaoh would not let people out because he would not let people in.
Over the last year, I have come to relate to that hard-heartedness. The pandemic and lockdown have been a stressful experience. Personally, I think I have turned inwards, focusing much more on myself and my family than on others and their needs. I have looked forward, determined to get through the crises, but I have not looked around at others and made the conscious effort I should to empathise.
A heart that can’t let anyone in also isn’t ready to let itself out. I wonder how the last year will affect people’s psyche. Has the last year, with its necessary focus on isolation and separation, prepared us for the hard emotional work of returning to being in community? What kinds of people will be when we emerge from this year? Will we have the empathy we need to let our people go?
This is Mental Health Shabbat. It is a time for us to reflect on the state of our hearts. We do not want our hearts to be hard, like Pharaoh’s. It is a time to open up our hearts, so that we can let our own feelings out, and the feelings of others in.
This was a short sermon for Friday night at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.
 Ex 7:3
 Ex 7:13
 Ex 8:28
 Ex 7:23