Parashat Bo

January 5, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, News, Shmot

By Rabbi Katy Allen

All About the Heart

I entered a patient room for a routine visit. Medical staff hovered nearby – they were having trouble with the EKG equipment, and yes, it was fine for me, the chaplain, to visit; they needed a few minutes. The patient, George (not his real name), told me his heartbeat was irregular, and they were trying to figure out why. I asked if he would like a prayer – yes. What would he like me to pray for? “I think you should pray for me.”

The next day, George requested another visit. “You’ll never guess,” he said. The EKG had shown his heartbeat to be normal, it was still normal. The doctors were stumped. Suddenly, this visit was no longer routine. I left the room a bit overwhelmed and wondering about the Mystery of the universe.

Nine months later, I received a message from George. He was bringing his wife in for a procedure and wanted to see me. His heartbeat remained normal, he told me, still wondrous and grateful. His wife, equally grateful, identified the miracle of her husband, who always did for and thought of others: the miracle was his requesting for a prayer for himself. George had understood that he needed to ask for help.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers… in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 10:1-2).

God told the Israelites to go and worship in the desert, away from the burden of slavery, in uncharted territory. God showed the world the Divine might and power; everyone saw and knew that Adonai was the Lord. It was all totally amazing. But the reason it all began was because of what happened back in Chapter 2: the Israelites cried out – yitz’aku, and “God took notice of them.” (Ex. 2:23, 25).

God took notice. Yet, the slaves’ daily life didn’t change. From their perspective, it looked like nothing had happened; they could easily believe God hadn’t heard them. But behind the scenes, in the wilderness of Horeb, Moses’ life was changing. All because the Israelites had cried out from the depths of their souls – from that deep, deep place – that makom (literally, “place”) – out of which our cries for help can engender true change.

God didn’t make it easy for the Israelites to reach the wilderness. After a lifetime of bondage, they experienced a long and frightening journey outward toward freedom, with so many stops and starts, and around them the cries of the Egyptians as their firstborn sons died before their eyes. It had to have been traumatic. All of it so the world could know that “God is Adonai.”

And all around the Israelites, desert and sea and sky – the wonders of God’s creation.

How often do we really effectively ask for what we need, either by crying out deeply enough to provoke a shift, as the Israelites did, or by simply asking, as George did? What does it take for us to open up so deeply that we reach the core of our pain? What does it take for us to speak with the clarity of understanding George exhibited? What does it take for us to let go of our questions and our woundedness, to release them into the universe, and to await the answers?

The Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, explains: “by hardening the monarch’s heart, My Presence is somehow felt in Pharaoh. And through My Presence, there is a spark of goodness in him.” (Hasam Sofer: Commentary on the Torah, Shemos, Selected and Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Stern, ArtScroll Judaica Classics, Mesorah Publications, 1996, p. 53). Every morning in the first blessing before the Shema, we say u’vorei et hakol – “the One who creates all.” We acknowledge God’s presence in everything, in both all that is good and all that is painful. God was present in Pharaoh. God was present in the suffering of the Israelites.

Currently, my prayer practice includes going outdoors before bedtime to recite Ma’ariv Aravim (“Who causes the evening dusk”) and gaze at the sky. It is wondrously different every night. I often reflect that I’m seeing the same stars as my children, my mother, my brothers, or others in my life, wherever they may be. So are all the people all over the world, no matter what their color or religion or political persuasion or economic status or state of health. So were the Israelites when they encamped in the desert. We all look up at the same sky.

Each of us must work in our own way to find God’s presence in our suffering. What is its meaning? Why did it happen? Who are we now? Each of us must work to find the way to ask for what we need to make our way out of our suffering and to remain whole. We must each look within, we must cry out, we must ask from a deep makom within us, we must let go and let the universe provide the answers – the stars, Earth, Ein Sof (“the Infinite”), the love and caring of those around us, the Mystery – however we describe It and however we find It.


Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (AJR 2005) is an NAJC board-certified staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and a chaplain of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of Massachusetts. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, in Wayland, MA, a community centered in the natural world (