Softening the heart


Jews everywhere have just finished celebrating Passover, when we remember our redemption from slavery in Egypt. The villain of the Passover story is Pharoah. Given multiple opportunities to let the Jews leave, he instead hardens his heart, eventually with G-d’s help, leading to calamity for his people. 

As an antidote, one of my rabbis provided us with an exercise to soften the heart. It consists simply of naming things. So, for example, on a walk, you might say to yourself, “Rock.” “Tree.” “Bird.” “Stream.”  The point is to quiet the mind and notice the beauty around us. The rabbi says this softens our heart for love. 

What struck me about this exercise is that it’s what J now does naturally, since she developed Alzheimer’s disease. We have taken a number of walks recently.  Despite her limited ability to sustain speech, she notices, points and says, “See, flower.” “Puppies.” “Little boy.”

Perhaps I am rationalizing, and I certainly don’t want to minimize the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease, but I do think — and hope — that these simple declarations reflect that her mind is now quiet, and the cares and anxieties we experience have dissipated. As a result, her heart has softened and she can express the love she has always felt. 

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