Parshat Bo: The Point Of No Return

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Bo, begins with Hashem’s instruction to Moshe to “Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order to place my signs in his midst.” We must ask, why did Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart? It would seem that the goal of the signs was to convince the Egyptians of God’s existence and absolute mastery of nature and thereby inspire them to renounce idolatry and embrace the creator. This is clearly enunciated in the verse which states, “And Egypt will know that I am the Lord when I increase my signs among them.” If that is the case, it is difficult to comprehend why Hashem would “harden” Pharaoh’s heart as this would seemingly run counter to the stated objective of the signs.

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that of Free Will. Man is endowed with the divine soul which enables him to perceive truth and freely choose his life’s path. There are no internal or external factors which pre determine the choices he will make. Because man is the master of his moral destiny, he is subject Reward and Punishment. The power of free will is such that man is never defeated by sin but always retains the capacity to correct his flaws and return to the path of righteousness. Thus for Judaism the ability of the sinner to repent is of paramount importance. Hashem says, “I do not desire the death of the sinner but that he abandon his evil path and live.” The worst sinner has the option to do Teshuva at any point, even on his death bed. If it is genuine, it would be accepted and earn him a share in the world to come. 

However, according to the Rambam, there is an exception to this rule. He asserts that there is a unique punishment reserved for a particular type of sinner whose evil is so egregious that Hashem removes his capacity to repent in order that he receive his just punishment. Rambam cites Pharaoh as an example of this phenomenon saying, “Therefore it says in the Torah, ‘And I will harden the heart of Pharaoh’, for he sinned of his own accord initially and did evil to the Jews who dwelled in his land.  Justice demanded that repentance be withheld from him so that he be punished and therefore Hashem hardened his heart.”

We can now make sense of the opening verse of Parshat Bo. G-d wanted to give the Egyptians a chance to obtain proof of His Existence and absolute power. This required numerous signs and wonders. Each plague displayed a different aspect of Hashem’s supreme might and strengthened the growing belief of the people in His Existence. Had Pharaoh relented under the pressure of the blows and released the Jews, it would have been bad for the Egyptians as it would have terminated the “learning experience” of the plagues.

The demise of Pharaoh contains a sobering lesson. Our task in life is to perfect our souls through pursuit of truth and righteous behavior. Our most precious asset is the power to choose between good and evil. Every sin strengthens the forces of instinct and weakens our ability to overcome them.  Every good deed empowers the soul and elevates our spiritual moral. Full confidence in our capacity for goodness is essential to our mission in life as individuals and people. May we always act in a manner which justifies this optimistic attitude. 

Shabbat Shalom