A Heart Hardened Against Repentance

Rabbi Richard Borah 

In the parsha of Devarim  Moshe recounts many of the pivotal events of the Jewish people’s forty-year odyssey through the desert.  Moshe states:  "

But Sihon, king of Heshbon, did not wish to let us pass by him, for the Lord your God caused his spirit to be hardened and his heart to be obstinate, in order that He would give him into your hand, as this day.

The Rambam in the Mishnah Torah explains unique type of punishment in which God blocks the path of repentance for an individual, and brings as examples Pharaoh and Sichon:

It is possible that a person may commit a grave transgression, or several transgressions, such that the True Judge rules that the punishment for this sinner, for the transgressions that he has performed willingly and knowingly, is that teshuva will be withheld from him and he will not be allowed the right to turn from his evil, so that he may die and be lost in the sin that he performs... Therefore, it is written in the Torah, "I shall harden Pharaoh's heart": because he first sinned on his own initiative, and did evil to the Israelites living in his land, as it is written, "Let us deal wisely with them..." - therefore it was ruled that teshuva would be withheld from him so that he may be punished; therefore, God hardened his heart. But why does He then send a message to him via Moshe, saying, "Let [My people go] and repent [your evil ways]," if He has already told him, "You will not send them out" - as it is written, "You and your servants I know..." but for this I have placed you?" In order to teach everyone that when God withholds teshuva from a sinner, he is not able to repent; he dies in his wickedness which he performed at first of his own free will. Likewise, Sichon: because of his sins he was punished by having teshuva withheld from him, as it is written, "For the Lord your God hardened his spirit and toughened his heart." And likewise, the Canaanites: because of their abominations, teshuva was withheld from them and they waged war against Israel, as it is written, "For it was from God that their heart was hardened for battle against Am Yisrael, in order that they may be annihilated...."  God did not decree upon Pharaoh to cause evil to Israel, nor did He cause Sichon to sin in his land, nor the Canaanites to perform abominations, nor the Israelites to engage in idolatry. All of these sinned of their own accord, and all were punished by having teshuva withheld from them.

(Laws of Teshuva, 6:3)

There are different interpretations of what is meant by the “hardening of the heart” and whether it means that teshuva is completely prevented by God or only impeded and made more difficult. The Rambam also brings in Chapter 4 of the Laws of Repentance the “5 things (devarim) that cause the path of repentance to be locked (HaNoahleem) before those that commit them.” These 5 are:

1. One who separates themselves from the community

2. One who contradicts the words of the sages        

3. One who scoffs at mitzvot 

4. One who demeans his teachers

5. One who hates admonishment


God’s impeding or preventing of repentance for an individual is a difficult concept to understand, as the repentance from sin is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Even the terrible sinner on his or her death bed can repent, receive pardon and merit a portion in the world to come.  So why are the 5 acts listed above, as well as Pharoah’s and Sichon’s sins, so unique? 

These 5 sins all share a common flaw of self-exaltation. The person is so overwhelmed with their sense of self-importance that they have no patience or tolerance for working with the community.  They cannot endure the humbling aspect of community participation. The “reality check” we experience is when others disagree with us or inform us that perhaps, we are not as clever or wonderful as we would like to believe. This profound hubris is also behind the contradicting of a Torah sage, the scoffing at a mitzvah and the demeaning of one’s teacher. All of these bespeak a high-heartedness (govah lave). But the clearest example of this inability to endure humility is  hating admonishment. Sichon and Paroh were so full of themselves that it would have required specific intervention by God to provide them with an opportunity to see things differently and, perhaps, do teshuvah. Their punishment was that this was not afforded them and their own closed-off haughtiness “blocked them” from teshuvah. By not intervening and providing the precise situation that would have leveraged their path to teshuvah, God impeded their teshuvah, but did not absolutely prevent it.

The Rav (Rabbi Yoseph B. Soloveitchik) explains the concepts of man’s sinning and repenting as being the difference between man functioning as an object or functioning as a subject. The Rav explains:

Sin transforms a person into someone who is acted upon or influenced. In response to the very first sin, when HaShem confronted Adam after eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam’s response was, “The woman who You gave to be with me, she gave it to me…”(Beresheit,3:12). When HaShem confronted Eve in turn, the response was similar, “The snake tricked me and I ate” (Beresheit 3:13). Both emphasized their helplessness in overcoming an external influence that “forced” their fall….Regarding sin, an analogy is made to sleep. Sleep is an absolute passive state, in which man is a pure object. The insistent demand of the shofar, according to the Rambam, is the imperative to awaken oneself…. Through sin one is an object, while teshuvah allows one to again become a subject” (“Before HaShem You Shall Be Purified” Annotated by A. Lustiger, page 32-33).

Rabbi Solovetichik focuses on this distinction between the person as "subject" versus the person as "object" in his essay "Kol Dodi Dofek". Here he describes how a person who experiences tragedy at first only as a passive recipient of "fate" must attempt, through will and thought, to take charge of the tragedy and find a way to utilize it for some betterment in his or her person or the community.  In this way, the Rav explains, a person acts properly and nobly by transforming him or herself from a person of fate to one of destiny. Now, no longer simply a passive object of tragic circumstances, the person emerges as a subject who purposefully participates in the course and outcomes of the tragedy, retroactively giving it meaning and changing its character to one that contains some element of good.