There’s a story in Aaron Lansky’s book Outwitting History where Lansky, in his pursuit of Yiddish books, speaks with an old man in his apartment. The man speaks of how his generation is gone, there is no one to speak of literature or music with, and how lonely he is. He kvetches that there isn’t a person to talk to. Lansky knows there’s a woman of the same generation down the hall, who also knows Yiddish, and when he brings her up, the old man waves a finger in Lansky’s face and says “Her? Feh. Her, I don’t talk to!”
Does that sound familiar? Here is a man, desperate in loneliness, but because of something that happened in their past (we never learn what), these two souls will remain cut off from one another. Is it stubbornness? Is it trauma? Or are their hearts hardened to one another? And is it the same with us? When we refuse to converse with someone, to change our own perspective or listen to another, when we are so focused on our own needs and wants and cannot see the other, is it because of what experience has taught us? Or are our hearts hardened?
Twenty times in the book of Exodus we read that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, sometimes by God, and sometimes by Pharaoh himself, and we focus on the question of whether or not there is any free will in the story. And for many, that is the beginning and the end of the book of Exodus: do we have free will or not? But I think we ask the wrong question. The question should really be: do we exercise our free will or not? And too often, we don’t. We become paralyzed by previous choices, good and bad, by relationships and conversations gone sour, by our own biases and experiences. The Torah uses the term “kabed lev” to describe stubbornness, which literally means “a heavy heart”. How many people in our lives—how many of us—have heavy hearts, weighed down with by patterns of behavior that perhaps we don’t even like, and yet can’t shake? After all, Wednesday wasn’t just Wednesday, was it? How many of us made resolutions? How many of us will keep them; that is, change our behaviors, or at least learn to accept, really accept, our choices, lifting the weight off of our hearts?
Shlomo Carlebach, the great Jewish neo-hasidic musician, and himself a holocaust survivor, used to give concerts in Germany and Austria, even early in his career. When asked how he could perform in such hated countries that did such terrible things to Jews, he replied: “if I had two souls, perhaps I would devote one of them to hating the people who did so many terrible things. But I have only one soul.” So it is with us, we have one heart, one soul. Will we let it get hard, calcify, remain unchanging for all time? Or will we remain open and free, our hearts open, ourselves open to growth and renewal?
“Days are scrolls; write on them only what you want remembered,” wrote Bahya ibn Pakuda. What do we want to write in this New Year? That choice is ours, if only we open our hearts to it.