The Hardened Heart

Rabbi Reuven Mann

A major feature, of the story of plagues which were visited upon Egypt, is the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” Superficially, this seems to imply, that Hashem made the King stubborn, so that he would refuse to yield to Moshe’s demands.

This way of understanding the matter, asserts that Pharaoh actually lost his free-will and could not find his way, to comply with G-d’s Will. This is the view of the Rambam, who maintains that even though it is the general desire of Hashem that the wicked should repent and return to righteous behavior; there are exceptions, and Pharaoh was one of them. He was penalized for his great wickedness, by being prevented from escaping his predicament.

However, not all the commentators accept this position. Most prominent among the dissenters, is the Sforno, who argues that Hashem never “gives up” on even the worst sinner; but instead “waits” for him, to repent. And, if he does return to Hashem and renounces his sinful ways, Hashem will forgive him.

Indeed, the Rambam himself, holds that even if a person sinned grievously his entire life but (sincerely) repented at the very end, his Teshuva (repentance) is accepted and he has a place in the world to come. (Unless, that person is one of the few whose sins, like those of Pharaoh, are so wicked that they are punished with the loss of their free-will and thus cannot do Teshuva.)

But the Sforno, denies that Hashem ever removes a person’s capacity for repentance. His way, of understanding the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart, is unique and original. He says, that it’s purpose was to provide Pharaoh with the intestinal fortitude, to resist being crushed by the overwhelming force of the plagues. Many of the afflictions visited upon Pharaoh and Egypt, were devastating and terrifying. The natural impact, would have been to instill great fear and break down any possibility of resistance.

Therefore, says the Sforno, Pharaoh would have automatically yielded to Hashem, as a result of the crippling blows which were visited upon him. But that type of capitulation, was not what Hashem sought; for it would not have resulted from a free-willed decision, to become obedient to the Creator.

Therefore, Hashem intervened by giving Pharaoh the psychological endurance, to not be crushed by the blows that fell upon him. In this way, Pharaoh would not be compelled to listen to Moshe, but would retain the ability to freely decide.

The pertinent lesson here, is to carefully preserve our freedom of action; and not allow ourselves to become so addicted to unwholesome substances and behaviors, eventuating in our becoming creatures of compulsion. A true human being, is one who possesses the freedom to behave according to wisdom. One, who like Pharaoh, recognizes the good but simply cannot compel himself to do what it requires, is lacking a vital component of the human constitution.

We may raise a question on the Rambam: If Pharaoh had lost the ability to conform to G-d’s command to send forth the Jews, how is it that in the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh himself gave the order for the Jews to leave immediately. Did he not, in this instance, do precisely what he had been instructed to do?

I believe, that the Rambam and Sforno would agree, that Pharaoh’s freeing of the Jews under the pressure of the final plague, did not constitute a conscious decision to conform to Hashem’s Will. In this case, the terror was so great, that Pharaoh simply had no choice. He reacted instinctively, in order to save himself, from an unthinkable calamity. In this instance, G-d did not intervene to give Pharaoh the emotional strength, to remain uncrushed by the blows.

The feature of repentance, was prominent in the first nine Makkot (plagues), that Hashem brought down on Egypt. In all of these cases, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could retain a clear mind and make a rational decision. But Pharaoh squandered the opportunity.

Our Parsha, Bo, records the final meeting between Moshe and Pharaoh, which took place after the plague of Darkness. Moshe firmly told him, that the Jews would have to bring all of their animals with them, for they had no way of knowing what and how many sacrifices Hashem would require of them. Moshe went so far as to say, “Even you will place in our hands feast-offerings and elevation-offerings; and we shall offer them, to Hashem our G-d. Shemot 10:25)”

According to the Even Ezra, Moshe meant to say, that our G-d is the Creator of the universe, whom all people – including Pharaoh – are obligated to worship. As far as Pharaoh was concerned, this was the final straw. “Pharaoh said to him (Moshe), ‘Go from me! Beware—do not see my face any more, for on the day you see my face you shall die!’ (Shemot 10:28)”

Pharaoh, thereby indicated, that his relationship with Moshe was over; and he would not engage in any further efforts to hear the commands of Hashem, or be affected by the words of Moshe. The purpose of the tenth plague, was to cause Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery; even though doing so, was against his will.

Hashem, had granted Pharaoh a great opportunity to grow spiritually, by assigning Moshe and Aaron to be his teachers and guides; but Pharaoh tragically squandered the opportunity.

There is much we can learn from the tragic story of Pharaoh. Hashem provides us with many chances to improve ourselves, in many different ways. We should take advantage of them, when they appear, and not put them off for a later date.

We do not know what the future holds, and whether opportunities that are available now, will be there in the future. Or if our great desire for religious growth and improvement, will always be so powerful and compelling. In the spiritual realm, we should always be guided by the advice of our Rabbis, who famously said, “If not now, when? (Avot 1:14)”

Shabbat Shalom.