The Pharaoh Syndrome

by | Jan 30, 2009 | 0 comments

Regarding the case of the Aguna of Vilna I see you are leaning toward stringency. You feel the woman should not remarry.

The reason you are leaning this way is because you are not here. You do not hear the crying of this woman nor do you see her tears. If I would be where you are I too would be stringent, but I am here. I will rule leniently for her. May G-d save me from mistakes. (Rav Chaim of Volozhin in a letter to one of the great poskim of his generation. Quoted in Chut HaMeshulash 8)

This is an extremely important teaching. We know a halachic decision must be determined with one’s mind and ones knowledge. Rav Chaim Volozhin teaches us that a halachic conclusion must also be determined with ones heart.

Hardening of the heart. This was a disease that Pharaoh brought upon himself. Pharaoh hardened his heart to the first major plagues that were brought upon him until his heart became a heart of stone. He became incapable of feeling the pain of the Jews, eventually he stopped feeling the pain of his own people and ultimately he couldn’t even feel his own pain. G-d told Moses to keep talking to Pharaoh. Don’t expect him to be in touch with reality; don’t expect him to be moved by the pain of his own people and by the disintegration of his country. He is frozen. He has a severe case of hardening of the arteries.

Pharaoh was not a comic book character. He was a world leader who went down in history as one of the most important contributors to modern civilization. He was not unintelligent. He was educated and probably very refined. But in order to survive his own immoral decisions he engaged in cognitive dissonance, he taught himself not to feel.

During the Holocaust when reports and pictures of millions of Jews enslaved, tortured and murdered were revealed, the world and its leaders managed to keep their cool. They spoke and acted with their minds, but where were their hearts? How can we look at the pictures and read reports of a Tsunami or famine and sleep at night?

The Shulchan Aruch states (Y.D. 249; 4) that if a poor person stretches out his or her hand it is forbidden to turn the poor person away, rather give him even one shriveled fig. The commentaries explain that unless you are absolutely sure that the beggar is a charlatan it is forbidden to turn him away. The majority of beggars are not charlatans and one may not make any assumptions. If you have no money to give the person what should you do? Show the poor person your good heart, show him that you would have given him but you simply can’t. (Ibid.)

Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor is not only about the person in need. It is about my heart! If we train ourselves to harden our heart we will lose the capacity to feel. Ultimately we will not feel the pain of the people around us at all; this will spread to not feeling the pain of those whom we love. We will have contracted the Pharaoh Syndrome.

Where is the rachamim? Is it possible for one Jew to insult another Jew, even if it’s your spouse or your child and then fall to sleep at night!? Have we hardened our hearts? Do we still feel pain? If we can no longer feel pain it is impossible to keep the Torah! It is impossible to act as a Jew!

The Prophet Yechezkel prophesied that there will come a time that G-d will remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh.
Perhaps in order for the Jews to survive the long night of Galus, and in order for us to be able to witness the misery and retain our sanity, we had to harden our hearts.
We had to anesthetize ourselves. We had to stop feeling in order to survive. Amongst the dreams of Moshiach, Eretz Yisroel, Bais HaMikdosh and Techiyas Hamaisim “ there is one dream that stands out above the others. A time will come when we will get our hearts back. We will begin to thaw. This will be a time of peace and happiness for all.


Dedicated by my friend Elle Arnot in honor her father Tanchum ben Yehuda Leib “who left an indelible positive mark on his two grandsons who consciously emulate his integrity, ingenuity, work of the hands and kibud av v’em. My father emulated his grandfather Chaim, a simple shoemaker in Minsk.The Torah teaches us to be mindful of which grandparent we choose to emulate.”

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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