Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
What does it mean that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” (Ex. 9:12) If the goal was to free our people from Egyptian servitude, why make Pharaoh endure the Ten Plagues when he might have let us go after six?
The Exodus was our Exodus, of course, but it was about far more than the Jewish people. God brought us out of Egypt to establish God’s supremacy not only for us, but for the world, “so as to show you My power, and so that my name will be told through all the earth.” (Ex. 9:16) In the ancient world, most people believed that each collection of gods were local, and that the closer one was to where they “lived” the more powerful they became. The power of these gods was expressed through the power of the people who lived under them – so that powerful cities or nations were thought to have more powerful gods than weaker polities. Egypt, as the superpower of its day, was widely recognized as having the most powerful gods of all. The Ten Plagues not only refuted the power of the Egyptian gods in the place where they should have been strongest, but specifically took them out one by one. The Nile, which was worshipped, became blood. Ra the sun god could not prevent the darkness. Pharaoh, who was supposed to be a god himself, could not save his first-born son. The full course of Ten Plagues left virtually every single god of Egypt revealed as a false god. Anything less might have allowed for God’s supremacy to be challenged.
Yet, this leaves us with moral dilemma. Pharaoh, no matter how evil he was, was seemingly manipulated by God to the point where he ceased to have any free will at all. How could God force a person to do things against his will that would only result in magnifying his suffering and that of his people? Isn’t God just? Let’s look at the Hebrew for the word we usually translate as “hardened” – va’yechazeiq. The literal translation of this word is “strengthened.” What does it mean to strengthen one’s heart? It means to strengthen that which is already there. God did not change Pharaoh, but rather made Pharaoh more stubbornly pharaoh-like.
Pharaoh was not pure evil; sometimes he could even be sensitive – such as when he admitted to Moses, “I have offended this time. The Lord is in the right and I am my people are in the wrong.” (Ex. 9:27) However, he only enters this softer space when he feels the pressure of suffering after a plague. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it, Pharaoh was sensitive to a point but resisted the moral challenge: “Pharaoh was capable of understanding the moral significance of events. However, due to his firm heart he was too cognizant of economic [and power] interests which clashed with the moral imperative.” (HaAdam Ve’Olamo, pp. 92-3, 1998)
This is a lesson for every generation. We can stubbornly strengthen our hearts against what we know is morally right as we pursue our own perceived self-interests. However, in doing so we are only practicing a form of idolatry. We are serving that which is not real, has no value and ultimately can provide us neither security nor sustenance. We are selling ourselves a lie. Torah and history both demonstrate that such a path always leads those who follow it to eventual loss and even destruction.
Living with soft and open hearts, being sensitive to the needs of others, pursuing lives of service – these are among the teachings of Torah that have sustained us for thousands of years and will continue to do so for thousands more yet to come.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras