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Hearts of stone

On Monday evening, we will gather around the table for our annual colourful, oversubscribed, possibly drawn-out family dinner called the Seder. We will read about taskmasters and frogs and might debate if our ancestors built the pyramids. Our children may sing the overworked “No, no, no, I will not let them go”, the song that captures Pharaoh’s intransigence or what the Torah calls a “hardened heart”. Pharaoh was not always unfeeling. One opinion in the Talmud says he flipped overnight from Admirer of Joseph to Hater of Israelites.

G-d warned Moses that Pharaoh would be a tough nut. When Moshe told Pharaoh to free the Israelites, he upped the slavery ante in response. After Aaron transformed water into blood and rained frogs on Egypt, Pharaoh sniggered and ignored him. But, as the plagues intensified, the story took a turn. We no longer read of Pharaoh “hardening his heart” and disregarding the Divine message. Instead, G-d stiffens his conscience, as He had promised Moses He would.

Why does G-d not give him a chance to rehabilitate? Free will is a fundamental principle of a just world. Maimonides argues that if G-d hardwired people to be criminals, it would be a gross injustice to punish them for their behavior. If G-d overrode Pharaoh’s conscience, how could He hold him liable for refusing to release the Israelites?

Again, at the Splitting of the Sea Pharaoh acted irrationally, chasing after the Jews into what he should have realized was a supernatural trap. It is as if some otherworldly force compelled Pharaoh, smarting from the wounds of the Divine strike on his nation’s firstborns, to re-attack G-d’s protected nation. How did he think it would end? Pharaoh’s burning hatred for the Jewish nation drove him into a suicidal frenzy that destroyed his nation.

Maimonides suggests that G-d is exceedingly patient. If someone makes a poor choice, Hashem overlooks it. He only holds us accountable when we repeat toxic behavior. Those who insist on sticking to their aberrant choices, despite G-d nudging towards integrity, suffer the worst punishment: The inability to change course. When G-d declares someone too far gone, they become addicted to their nefarious choices at all costs, to the point of self-destruction.

By the time the Jews streamed out of Egypt, Pharaoh was incapable of objectively realizing his dysfunction. He remained embroiled in a looping cycle of hatred that compelled him to hunt the Jews and, in turn, drown himself.

At our Seder table, we repeatedly invoke the theme of repetitive history. What happened to our forefathers is reflected in our experiences. Our ancient enemies have morphed into modern incarnations who remain stuck in the pathology of the rogues of the Bible.

Like Pharaoh, Jew haters rehash their spiteful views without pausing to fact-check or introspect. Their loathing blinds them to their moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy. The statistical odds are against them and the truth decries them, yet they will storm on convinced of the nobility of their degenerate cause.

Their hardened hearts drew the mullahs of Iran into direct conflict with Israel. On Saturday night, G-d reminded them that He protects His people. I am not a military expert, but Israel’s stunning defense against the Iranian blitz defies probability. We know how often our phones glitch or our computers require a restart. The array of defenses that Israel needed to fend off 99% of the missiles and suicide drones this week is incredible. Does this mean they will leave us be? Of course not. Not them, not their proxies on Israel’s borders, nor their salivating supporters chanting death threats on city streets and antisemitic tropes in government halls.

The Seder night reminds us how this ends. They become the next chapter in our ever-longer book of “Nations who tried to kill us and were destroyed”. Have they read the Pesach story? Are they familiar with the miraculous survival of our nation? Maybe. It makes no difference if they did. When G-d hardens someone’s heart, sense cannot prevail. Like Pharaoh, there is only one path for the villain who has clogged their arteries with antisemitism.

They may not read our story, but we will. We will examine our Haggadah and recharge our optimism that Hashem will protect us, neutralize our enemies and, please G-d, allow us to celebrate this Pesach with Moshiach.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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