David Walk

Hardening Pharaoh’s Arteries

Don’t you love it when the bad guy gets his (or her, I’m thinking of you, Cruella!) comeuppance? I definitely do, ever since I was a little boy watching cowboy movies from the back seat of my parents’ car at the Drive-In, but we called it the open-air theater, for some reason. So, there should be unalloyed joy as Pharaoh and the Egyptians (sounds like a rock band) get what’s coming to them for oppressing our ancestors so many centuries ago. But there’s a fly in the ointment. What’s going on with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Shouldn’t he have the opportunity to let the Jews go? 

Let’s begin with Rashi who gives the two most famous approaches to the issue. Rashi begins, ‘it is better that his heart should be hardened in order that My signs may be multiplied against him so that you may recognize My divine power… the Holy One, blessed be He brings punishment upon the nations so that Israel may hear of it and fear Him.’ In other words, this view is that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were not a major issue to God in this scenario. Many observers are disturbed by the unfairness of this position. 

Rashi himself brings an alternate approach that God only hardened Pharaoh’s after the first five plagues. So, really Pharaoh brought this upon himself. The Rambam gives his spin on this viewpoint:

There are verses which imply withholding Teshuva is a direct punishment for multiplying their iniquities… For these reasons, it is written in the Torah [Exodus 14:4], “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Since, he began to sin on his own initiative and caused hardships to the Israelites who dwelled in his land… Therefore, The Holy One, blessed be He, hardened his heart (Laws of Teshuva, 6:2).  

So, Rashi presents both sides of the argument. First, it’s great to see the bad guys go down, and, then, he presents the issue of fairness. Eventually, he concludes that Pharaoh is being fairly punished for his previous behavior. 

But maybe there’s another way of understanding this scenario. Perhaps, the best way of dealing with the issue is psychologically. Professor Everett Fox suggests:

When one notes the pattern within—that Pharaoh does the hardening at the beginning, God at the end—the intent begins to become clear. The Plague Narrative is a recounting of God’s power, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness. The model is psychologically compelling: Pharaoh becomes trapped by his own refusal to accept the obvious. Despite the prophetic idea that human beings can be forgiven, we find here another one—that evil leads to more evil, and can become petrified and unmovable. 

So, Pharaoh, to a certain extent becomes a victim of his own machinations. What began as a state policy to control this large minority from becoming powerful enough to bring down the regime, actually causes the entire kingdom to fall. He becomes the perpetrator of his own nightmare. 

Rav Sacks OB”M beautifully expresses this idea: 

We lose our freedom gradually, often without noticing it. That is what the Torah has been implying almost from the beginning…We sometimes forget, or don’t even know, that the conditions of slavery the Israelites experienced in Egypt were often enough felt historically by Egyptians themselves… That is what the Torah means when it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Enslaving others, Pharaoh himself became enslaved. He became a prisoner of the values he himself had espoused. 

If Pharaoh is a victim, he’s a victim of his own machinations. It’s very easy to just say that Pharaoh did it to himself. He brought the whole empire down through his slavish devotion to the policy plan. We become enmeshed in our own snares. Fair enough, we often believe our own rhetoric. It’s just that most of us aren’t absolute rulers of vast empires. Our stubbornness, therefore, has limited ramifications. 

There is another slightly different perspective on this issue which is worthy of our attention. Rav Avraham Twerski OB”M was, of course, not only a ZADIK and Talmud Chacham, but a world-famous psychiatrist and authority on addiction. He noted:

Although we all read the Torah, no one understands the saga of the Exodus as someone familiar with addiction. Pharaoh is warned of serious punishment if he does not allow the Israelites to leave, but he rejects the warning. Then the punishments begin…This continues for nine punishments, and each time there is a promise on which he reneges. Only when all first-born die does Pharaoh surrender. So familiar. “I promise to stop,” followed by continuation of the addictive behavior. Only a disastrous rock-bottom brings him to his senses. I watch people in the synagogue who wonder, “Could anyone be so obstinate, to fail to recognize that his behavior results in destruction?” We know. 

When one understands the iron grip of addiction, then the behavior of Pharaoh follows an all too familiar spiral of self-deception and self-destruction. In this final scenario, I’m not sure exactly how to understand God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Maybe it just means God was allowing natural tendencies to play out.  

So, like my childhood persona, let’s root for the good guys, but let’s also be mature enough to consider the sorry plight of the villain trapped in a web of his own design. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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