Back to Resources

Parashat Va-‘era’: Patach Libeinu – Open our Hearts

by Annie Lewis | Published on January 4, 2008

A red-head sky high­lights the stones of Bethlehem’s huddled build­ings. I stand on the roof of the Al-Rowwad Theatre Training and Cultural Center in the Aida Refugee camp with a group of American, Canadian and Australian Jews. After a day of listening to stories, my heart is cracked – open and hurting. AbdelFattah Abusrour is the last to speak. In addi­tion to running the Al-Rowwad center that provides arts program­ming for chil­dren, Abdel is a play­wright, biology professor, painter and father of four. In a few minutes, we will board the mini bus to start back across the mammoth, four-mile gulf between this place and Baka, the neigh­bor­hood in Jerusalem I called home for two years. Abdel sends us off with a quote from The Little Prince:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essen­tial is invis­ible to the eye.”

My eye catches a shard of the secu­rity barrier, jutting out like glass from skin. I think of the cup my friend Uzi crushed at his wedding a few nights before. The wall is wedged in front of the burial place of Rachel, the matri­arch, who wept for an open womb. When the mini-bus first wove along the grafit­tied concrete, our tour guide, Elias Ghareeb told us, “Rachel was our first matri­arch to die in child­birth. Before the Intifada, many women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths would come here to pray for chil­dren.” For the capacity to bring new life into the world.

George Sa’adeh is the head­master of an inter­faith school estab­lished by the Greek Orthodox Church. He is also the Deputy Mayor of Bethlehem. On one of the walls of his office hangs a heart cut from red felt. At the center, a girl in a plaid jumper poses for a school portrait against a digital back­ground of wild­flowers. Later he tells us that this girl is his daughter Christina. The week the Intifada broke out, George was driving to the store with his wife, Najua and his daugh­ters Marian, fifteen, and Christina, twelve. Soldiers opened fire. He was shot nine times and Christina was shot in the head and neck. I see her picture on another wall, and around the room are images of Mary and Jesus, photographs of George shaking hands, a Palestinian flag. When he was younger, George studied in Los Angeles. Now, he is back in this barbed birth­place of a Messiah. He is a member of the Bereaved Parents Circle with other Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost chil­dren to bullets and shrapnel. All of them are set on coun­tering the horrific expe­ri­en­tial educa­tion so many chil­dren receive on both sides of the wall – the lessons Marian could have locked into that day in the car. They will teach their chil­dren and their children’s chil­dren that human beings have the capacity to open our hearts to one another.

Most of the day, I am moved most by the normal human things, how Elias jokes about the gnarled roads and the impul­sive drivers. He wears a golden band on his right hand, an engage­ment ring, which he will move to his left hand when he and Lena, his fiancé, get married in the summer. We meet Eilda Zaghmout, who works for the Holy Land Trust, an orga­ni­za­tion that trains indi­vid­uals in non-violence. She wears silver eye shadow, red nail polish and has a degree in busi­ness from Amman. She has just learned she is preg­nant with the first child of the next gener­a­tion of her family. At Al-Rowwad Cultural Center, Abdel shows us videos of the teenage boys from the refugee camp doing tradi­tional dabka dance. There, the walls are lined with photographs teenagers have taken of their lives. “Beautiful resis­tance,” he calls it. I am struck by how surviving with an intact soul and an open heart is subver­sive from all places around the Green Line.

In this week’s parashah, Va-‘era’, we read over and over about Pharaoh’s heart. The fact that Pharaoh’s heart was stiff­ened or hard­ened is reit­er­ated twenty times in the Tanakh, some­times in response to Pharaoh’s own will and other times at the hand of God. With a rigid heart, the stub­born ruler is unable to hear the words of Moshe.

The JPS Commentary elab­o­rates on this theme in Exodus:

It is to be noted that in the first five plagues Pharaoh’s obdu­racy is self-willed. It is only there­after that it is attrib­uted to divine causality. This is the biblical way of asserting that the king’s intran­si­gence has by then become habitual and irre­versible; his char­acter has become his destiny. He is deprived of the possi­bility of relenting and is irre­sistibly impelled to his self-wrought doom.”

When humans will­fully and contin­u­ally numb our hearts, we risk perma­nent loss of our capacity to feel with them.

As I prepare for Shabbat in Jerusalem, my heart wells up with love for Israel and my gut with safek, doubt, about her bound­aries, both phys­ical and moral. I worry about the hard­ening of hearts in the State of Israel and in our Diaspora Jewish commu­ni­ties. I worry that, shoul­dering the weight of gener­a­tions of trauma, we have become stuck and frozen. Locking onto narra­tives of the way things always happen here – between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs — we are losing chances to re-evaluate real­i­ties, to hear new stories, to see human beings. I worry that we are obstructing our hearts and damaging our vision irreversibly.

But just as God follows Pharoah’s lead, para­lyzing his heart once he has chosen to wall it off on his own, we learn that when we begin to open our hearts, God becomes our partner. In Parsahat Nitsavim, we are commanded “V’hashevota el’l’vavecha,” that we should take God’s command­ments to heart (Deuteronomy, 30:1). If we do this, we are promised:

Then the Lord your God will open (circum­cise) your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6).

If we make the first move, God will help us tear down the barriers that block us from loving and living. God wills our teshuvah.

And so this Shabbat Va-‘era’, I pray:

Elohei Hashamayim, help us to expe­ri­ence your pres­ence on this earth, but Elohei Ha-aretz, help us to remember that you are more than land.

Elohei Rachel, may our hearts peel open to those around us, that we may see what is essen­tial, that we may live.

Annie Lewis is a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary where she is a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She grad­u­ated from Brown University and has spent time in Cape Town, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. She is currently interning as a commu­nity orga­nizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Share This

Our Mission

Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

Read More

Contact Encounter

Encounter welcomes all your ques­tions, comments, stories, and queries.

For general inquiries, including upcoming program infor­ma­tion and dates, please write to:


– or –

Visit our Contact Us Page