Upon Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Jews leave Egypt, G-d began the first of the ten notorious plagues. After each plague, Pharaoh had an opportunity to let the people go but stubbornly refused. It is written several times that Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. In the last verse in Va’eira, after the seventh plague, it says,
“And Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased; so he continued to sin, and he strengthened his heart, he and his servants.”
From this verse, we see that not only did Pharaoh strengthen his heart but his servants were guilty of being callous as well. Plague after plague they continually forbade the Jews to leave Egypt. Immediately following, in Parshat Bo, the first verse says,
“The Lord said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst.”
At this point, it is Hashem Who is the One to harden their hearts.
There is much discussion regarding Pharaoh’s hardened heart but the hardening of the Pharaoh’s servants hearts seems to be neglected. When G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He took away his ability to have compassion. This might appear to be redundant for it is clear that Pharaoh already lacked compassion for the Jews. He not only subjected them to the harshest back breaking labor but he had also ordered the murder of countless Jewish babies. However, the verse is not referring to compassion for the Jews but for his native countrymen. Before G-d hardened his heart, Pharaoh maintained the natural propensity to be sparing with regards to his own people. Until then, the possibility existed that he might permit the Jews to leave after each plague which had caused the Egyptians suffering.
It is evident from Pharaoh’s servants that despite the hardened heart, Pharaoh could still change his mind and let the Jews go. For the servants, whose hearts were also hardened at this point, finally gave in and pleaded with Pharaoh to do so as it states,
“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?”
There are three methods in which people make decisions. Some make calculated decisions based on logic and the faculties of the mind, others are guided by their heart and most people have a healthy mix of the two.
The hardened heart took away the capacity to be guided by compassion/emotion but did not hinder the ability to govern from the brain. The servants were able to reason, despite their hardened heart, that the time has come to release the Jews. Pharaoh had the same ability to arrive at that conclusion, especially with his people pressuring him to do so, and yet he still fails to let them go. This failure resulted in severe consequences for his own people, who were yet to experience the last three and harshest plagues.This was a punishment for the Egyptian servants for their cruelty towards the Jews.
Pharaoh started off persecuting the Jews for he believed they posed a threat to his kingdom. He showed a complete lack of compassion and became so blinded by his hatred that eventually, he ended up lacking compassion for his own people. As happens with many brutal dictators his obsession with the enemy led him to self-destruct.
Acting inhumanely is always wrong, even toward one’s enemy. When one becomes obsessed and acts in a manner that lacks compassion for others this characteristic becomes ingrained in one’s personality to the extent that they lose the ability to have compassion for their own people and sometimes even themselves.