Shabbat Vaeira: What God did to Pharaoh God does to us all

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.– Exodus 7:3

This verse, along with the many that follow which indicate that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, poses one of the most difficult conundrums faced by Jewish philosophy. If God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he would not let the Israelite slaves leave Egypt, was that not depriving Pharaoh of his free will? And if Pharaoh had no freedom of choice, how could he be held accountable for his actions?

Through the ages, there have been a number of different responses. We note that during the first five plagues, Torah records that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Only after Pharaoh has hardened his own heart so many times does God take over and keep it hard. In line with this, my rabbi, Fred Schwartz (z”l), citing Maimonides, taught that Pharaoh had made so many evil choices in the past that he himself had relinquished his own free will. “Most people commit evil; Pharaoh BECAME evil.” And if we understand “God” as representing human nature, then Erich Fromm’s words concur: “‘The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous 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 Be as Gods, 1966, p. 101)

This, I think, is the implication of the words of Pirkey Avot (4:2): “one mitzvah precipitates another mitzvah and one sin begets another sin.” The more that one performs a mitzvah, the more inclined one is to do it again. The more one commits a sin, the greater the possibility that one will sin again and again. Behavior shapes character. What we do defines who and what we are.

I learned another interpretation this week from one of this Shabbat’s B’nai Mitzvah, Madeline Lee. Paraphrasing Maddie’s d’var Torah, Pharaoh’s heart had become as hard and cold as ice. He remained unmoved by the suffering of the Israelites and was even indifferent to the suffering inflicted on his own people as a result of the stance he was taking. This is in line with another understanding which suggests that in hardening (or freezing) Pharaoh’s heart, God was in fact restoring Pharaoh’s free will. Having a hardened heart meant that he was strong enough to resist any coercion or even influence, human or divine. His decisions were freely made, even in the face of all that plagued him and his people.

My understanding of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is based on a slightly different understanding of what it means that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I understand “hardened his heart” to mean “strengthened his resolve.” Pharaoh’s choices were freely made. He was able to hold on to his position as long as he did because God granted him strength, resolve, perseverance, determination, and perhaps even courage. These are things which emanate, not from the brain, but from the gut, or, if you will, from the soul. In this sense, God did not take away Pharaoh’s free will but in fact gave him the courage of conviction that enabled him to defy the will of God.

This is consistent with my belief that a Power beyond calls up from deep Within the resources of courage and resolve in each of us, resources we might not have known were there, that enable us to do what we freely choose to do. Holding on to one’s moral position, even in the face of fierce opposition, takes resolve, determination, and sometimes courage. Likewise, holding on to one’s hope, even in the face of that which would drain us of hope, takes resiliency, energy, and courage always.

But regardless of the choices we make, each of us has a gut-full/soul-full of strength, energy, determination, and courage from which to draw when facing the many challenges of life. These resources enable us to live out the courage of our convictions, regardless of what those convictions might be.


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