Practice & Plasticity

header shabbat blog Annie

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yossi imagines that every Friday evening, two ministering angels accompany a person home from shul, a good angel and an evil angel. When the entourage comes through the door and things are in Shabbat mode, with candles glowing and peace in the air, the good angel exclaims, “May it be like this on another Shabbat, too.” The evil angel unwillingly concurs and responds, “Amen.” Alternatively, if things are not in a state worthy of Shabbat, the evil angel says, “May it be like this on another Shabbat, too,” and the good angel unwillingly responds, “Amen.”

The force of habit is powerful. Our current patterns are the foundations for our future actions. So, too, with Pharaoh in this week’s parsha,Va-era. In the Book of Exodus, on twenty occasions, we encounter the motif of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in his treatment of the Israelites. Half of the time, the Torah describes Pharaoh doing the action of hardening his own heart. Half of the time, the heart-hardening is attributed to God. For those of us who believe in freewill, this is theologically thorny.  Psychologist, Erich Fromm, interprets the text to mean that at first, Pharaoh is free to choose generosity or stubbornness. However, each time he digs in his heels, his behavior becomes more deeply entrenched. In refusing over and over again to make a different choice, Pharaoh’s responses become ossified and he can no longer overcome them.

The flip-side to the story is that neuroscientists have discovered that our human brains have inherent plasticity. All throughout our lives, we have a miraculous ability to form new neural pathways. Our potential for growth and change is right here within us, invisible to the eye, like sap rising within a tree in the thick of winter.

This Shabbat,

may we connect to our power

to make choices,

to grow,

to adapt,

and to listen

with an openness

to being changed by what we hear.

Shabbat Shalom.