We encounter two very different Pharaohs over eight weeks of Torah readings. Why won’t the second Pharaoh of Exodus “learn his lesson”, change, or be changed? Is it just because God forces him to refuse, “in order to multiply My miracle-signs in the land of Egypt”? (Exod. 11:9)
The good Pharaoh of Genesis raises Joseph the slave from prison to be ruler over all Egypt. The other Pharaoh is called a “melekh chadash,” a new king—new because he inaugurates a radically new political order.
We know well what the new Pharaoh does. His first policy, based on a fear of foreigners, is to cast the entire Hebrew people into slavery. His next policy is to kill the Hebrew male babies, bringing God’s judgment upon himself and his nation.
How different is the story of Joseph’s Pharaoh, at the end of Genesis! He essentially makes himself into a pupil at Joseph’s feet, handing over to Joseph the reins of power.
Two Pharaohs, two opposing realities. Through Joseph, the office of Pharaoh amassed unlimited power, but Joseph’s Pharaoh never chooses to use that power. Only the new Pharaoh, the one “who did not know Joseph”, becomes an autocratic and genocidal tyrant.
What stopped Joseph’s Pharaoh from abusing his power? What led the second Pharaoh to pursue his policies even to the point of destroying all of Egypt?
A subtle difference between the two Pharaohs points to the answer.
When Joseph predicts the famine, he advises Pharaoh to find someone to manage Egypt’s crisis response. Pharaoh asks his court, “How can we find a man like this, who has the spirit of Elohim (God) in him? … There is no one understanding and wise like you (Joseph).” (Gen. 40:38-41:1) This Pharaoh has no delusion that he knows more than the generals, or the magicians (who were the scientists of their time), or prophets like Joseph.
The Pharaoh who battles Moses is the opposite. When he has the idea to enslave the Hebrews, he is already convinced that it’s the best and wisest idea: “Come, we will show how wise we can be with this people …” (Exod 1:10) He is yet one more man, one more leader, who isn’t the smartest, but thinks he is.
The consequences of this flaw are revealed in the second portion of Exodus, Va’era (read this week). Pharaoh and his advisers are confronted with seven plagues. After the first two—turning the water into blood and filling the land with frogs—Pharaoh’s magicians supply him with “alternative facts”, reproducing (but not curing) the plagues in order to show that they are just magic tricks.
But Pharaoh’s magicians stumble on the third plague of lice, which they can’t reproduce. They finally tell Pharaoh, “it is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:15), that it is no trick. But, the Torah says, “he would not listen to them.”
Sometimes “listen” means “obey”, but here, and all the verses about Pharaoh, the right way to read this is that Pharaoh “would not learn from them”, just as he refuses to learn from Moses and Aaron, and from anything else going on around him.
Even when the magicians admonish Pharaoh in parshah Bo (the following week), “Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exod. 10:7), Pharaoh still clings to his alternative facts. Continuing to refuse to send away the Hebrew people, he invites the last three plagues: locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn—the final plague a direct retribution for the drowning of the Hebrew babies.
Throughout, God and Pharaoh take turns stiffening Pharaoh’s heart (vayechezak/vay’chazeik), or making Pharaoh’s heart heavy (vayakhbeid/vayikhbad).
We listen with our hearts, we learn by heart, we understand in our hearts. Pharaoh does not lose his free will, but his ability to learn. Or rather, Moses’ Pharaoh, who starts out at the beginning of the story steadfastly refusing to learn from others, is given the power to continue on this path. God simply helps Pharaoh find the stiffening strength and heavy momentum to keep on, to exercise his will, in the face of crises and adversity that would make any normal person crumble and surrender.
Ben Zoma taught in Pirkei Avot (3:1) , “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” And the one who learns from no one? God help the country led by a such a ruler.
For an exploration of how Joseph created the conditions for slavery and tyranny, and more on how Joseph’s Pharaoh learned, see “A New King: Inaugurating Resistance Along with a President”, which this article draws on. You can download a pdf of all the verses in Hebrew that discuss Pharaoh’s heart and listening from neohasid.org.