Soul-Searching Begins at Home

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

In this week’s parsha, Bo, Moshe continues his steadfast confrontation with Pharaoh. The king of Egypt was one stubborn individual who brought great devastation upon himself and his nation because of his unfathomable obstinacy. While we may not be as bad as this unyielding ruler, there is a lesson we can all learn from his debacle. 

Man is his own worst enemy. When things go sour and we suffer setbacks, our immediate reaction is to seek sources of blame. Generally, this is a waste of time and energy. They say, “Charity begins at home.” I would add that the same should be true for blame. We studiously overlook the role our own actions and decisions played in facilitating the calamity that occurred. 

Pharaoh was engaged in a battle he could not win. His adversary was not Moshe, but the Creator of the universe. Given the terrible evils the Egyptians had visited upon the Jews, for no legitimate reason, G-d was extremely compassionate in His treatment of the oppressors. The plagues were, at first, very mild. In fact, at Moshe’s first encounter with Pharaoh, he sought to reason with him and convince him to accede to a most modest demand. 

It is commonly assumed that Moshe challenged Pharaoh to terminate the enslavement of the Jews. He thus became an inspiration to many oppressed people who were struggling for freedom. Numerous Negro spirituals extolled the great leader who confronted the mighty king and said, “Let my people go.” However, that impression is false. Moshe never entreated Pharaoh to liberate the Jews. All he requested was that they be given a respite from their labors so they could travel to the wilderness and there offer sacrifices to Hashem. 

Moshe was not fighting for the physical freedom of the Jews, but only for their right to serve the Creator in the manner He desired. This does not seem to be such an overwhelming request. Pharaoh had plundered massive amounts of uncompensated labor from the Jewish people. In fact, he owed them a debt he could not ever repay. All that was being asked of him was to grant this people a short amount of time to serve their G-d. Yet, having lost all shreds of his humanity, this proved to be too much for him to grant. 

In spite of this, Hashem dealt with him in a most generous manner. Even when Pharaoh demanded proofs, Moshe provided a sign that did not inflict any harm. Aaron cast his staff on the ground, and it turned into a snake. When Pharaoh’s magicians produced something that appeared to be similar, but in fact was not even comparable, Pharaoh hardened his heart and remained unyielding. 

This was followed by the plagues which at first were bothersome, but relatively mild. As Pharaoh became more obstinate, the blows became stronger. A wicked leader brings great destruction to his land and people. At the beginning of this parsha, Hashem told Moshe that He was going to unleash fierce blows that would have a catastrophic effect on Egypt. However, He also informed Moshe that these disasters would not cause Pharaoh to submit. Why not? “For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, in order to place My signs in his midst.” Many have questioned the meaning of this strange verse. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s heart and making it impossible for him to listen to reason? If so, then why was he punished for his recalcitrance? 

The Sforno maintains that Hashem never removes a person’s free will. His desire is not that a sinner should perish, but that he should “repent of his ways and live.” He explains that the “hardening of the heart” means that G-d would give him the emotional strength not to be crushed by the enormous blows Egypt would sustain. Teshuvah (repentance) can only be of value if it is the result of a calm and reasoned decision. Had Pharaoh relented under the pressure of unbearable pain, it would have held no moral value. Thus, G-d strengthened his heart so he would retain the option of free will. 

I would like to offer an additional thought on this matter. We can learn a great deal from the tragedy of Pharaoh. It is hard to comprehend how a person could be so stubborn and allow his entire kingdom to be pulverized, rather than make a very minor concession. Yet, that is what happens to an arrogant person. Sin corrupts a person’s thinking and causes him to act in a most irrational manner. Even when he experiences the negative consequences of his foolish choices, he does not repent. Ego and arrogance constitute the “stubbornness” of the heart and make it impossible for the sinner to admit that he is wrong. 

There is a lesson here for all of us. May we always make careful and righteous choices. Most of all, may Hashem guard us from haughtiness. Let us always be humble and ready to acknowledge our flaws. There is no such thing as a human being who never sins. We will all do stupid things at some point in our lives. May we avoid the insanity of crazy pride and retain the sense of humility that enables us to recognize our defects and to correct them. 

Shabbat shalom.