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Making God Appear in Our Lives and Through Our Lives

It is in Va'era that we first read of Pharaoh's hardening his heart. Of course, Pharaoh is not alone in having a hardened heart. It seems to be a common human affliction. A few years ago, I decided to create a ritual to help us examine this problem. The entire ritual is viewable at

What follows is a description of the ritual in light of the inspiration from this Torah portion.

The ritual facilitates heshbon nefesh, taking a moral accounting of our souls. I have led this several times and have found that it touches something personal within the participants that leads to a powerful discussion. One concern I tried to be mindful of is to create a ritual that would be accessible and that would not turn off people who do not like touchie-feelie, embarrassing activities. I don't like them myself. I can't say I have succeeded, of course. I also drew on the process of tashlich in order to create a resonance and immediate understanding of the process. I have used this ritual around Pesah and also on Yom Kippur afternoon.

The ritual begins with this introduction:
Why do we need a ritual that talks about how we harden our hearts? We need it because, though we identify easily with the children of Israel when they confront Pharaoh, we nonetheless live our lives like the Egyptians.

We harden our hearts so we can exist in modern society.

We harden our hearts because we don't think of experiences from another person's point of view. Could we live if our hearts were open to every request for our time, our resources, our interest? There are many reasons we harden our hearts.

This ritual is designed to help us examine our hearts and understand why we act this way, to consider whether we could or should act differently. These are not easy questions, and there are no simple answers. But we need to search to live the most fully human/e lives we can.
In constructing the ritual, I drew on four of the plagues as a basis to draw out feelings around four themes: false worship, uncleanness, separation, and the earth. Each part shows the connection between the theme, the Torah, and tradition around the specific plague.

For the theme of false worship, the ritual asks, in part:
What are our objects of reverence? What are the objects or persons or ideas for which we sacrifice time, money, love, others, our lives, other people's lives?

Are there ways we are like the Egyptians in our actions? Like the Egyptians do we choose to let our hearts become hardened? Do we worship a false god who cannot save?
For the theme of separation, the ritual asks, in part:
Did the afflictions of the skin, boils and lice, ever break through the reality that skin is only skin and not a limit where humanity stops? We are surrounded by others whose lives, joys, pains, fears we can but dimly know. Do we deal deceitfully with others? Do we make others into no-persons, nonliving things?

How many times do we look at another person and think their sadness, their happiness, their pain is less than ours, different from ours? How many times do we see they have the same connection to life as we do? Is there any way we can open our eyes to our connection to another?
The process of the ritual is to sit in a small a circle. Each person is given four small stones or something comparable that can be tossed and do no harm. The items are cast into the center of the circle as the ritual is performed at the end of each theme as a symbol of casting away the specific hardness we have allowed to exist in our hearts.

Parshat Va'era refers to God's saying, "And I appeared." It is through the process of heshbon nefesh, periodically taking a moral accounting of our souls, that we allow God to appear in our lives and through our lives.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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