Ex. 10:1 – 13:16
By Rabbi Baht Weiss
In the prior Torah portion, Vaera, Moses has come before Pharaoh seven times asking him to free the Hebrew people from slavery. And each time Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he is stubborn, and refuses to budge. God brings ferocious plagues to convince Pharaoh to change his mind. God inflicts blood, frogs, lice, insects, cattle disease, and hail upon the Egyptian people. None of these seven plagues have caused Pharaoh to change his mind.
In the first line of this week’s Torah portion God says:
“Bo…Go to Pharaoh, For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers in order that I display My signs among them…”
These lines can be difficult to understand. Is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that God can show off his powers? If God has the ability to harden Pharaoh’s heart, doesn’t he also have the ability to soften it, to enable him to feel compassion and let the Hebrew slaves go?
Centuries ago, Talmudic commentator Rabbi Yochanan was troubled by this. He reasoned that if God is pulling all the strings, and Pharaoh has no free choice, then the Egyptian ruler could not be held responsible for his choices. This would mean that none of us was truly free. Reish Lakish responded by explaining that God gave Pharaoh several opportunities to change his mind and allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt. The plagues were warnings. According to Resh Lakish, God hoped that Pharaoh would repent and free the slaves. “Since God warned him five times and Pharaoh refused to pay any attention and continued to stiffen his heart, God told him, ‘I will now add more trouble to what you have made for yourself. (Exodus Rabbah 13/3). In another words, Pharaoh brought on this condition by his own stubbornness.
It is said that the longer we develop bad habits, the more difficult it is to break from our accustomed ways. It becomes muscle memory—we often react as we have in previous situations. Often, we either need to develop good habits from the start or allow some perspective in order to see things differently.
During the first few plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but then the language changes and it says -that it was God who caused his heart to harden. By the time we get to the final plagues, Pharaoh’s heart has become so conditioned to being heavy or hard, that there was no longer a possibility of appealing to compassion, empathy or even logic.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, “The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change, the more he is determined by his pervious action…there comes a point of no return when man’s heart has become so hardened that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” (You Shall Not Be As Gods, 1966, p101.)
Habits are formed. Behavior that we engage in at an early age is harder to change as we become accustomed to such behavior. Like the plaque that forms on the arteries of one’s heart, once there is too much buildup, it is harder to fix.
We don’t want to become like Pharaoh, so set in our ways that we see that our own behavior is causing harm to ourselves and to others around us. What are we being stubborn and closed minded about in our own lives?
Each of us has a Pharaoh and a Moses inside of us. Each of us can be stubborn, hard hearted and unwilling to compromise, and each of us can feel powerless yet determined, faking it until we make it, and propelled by something greater than us. Are we digging our heels in on the right issues and fighting the right battles or are we, like Pharaoh, losing sight of the larger picture? Are our hearts hardened, heavy or steadfast? Let us think about our motivations, our relationships, and our own personal growth when we face challenges and opportunities outside our comfort zone so that we can receive each other with an open heart.