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David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam
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What about Moses’ heart?

How could the former Egyptian prince announce the last plague in good conscience, without protesting God's plan to kill so many? 
'The Death of the First-Born of Egypt,' 1838-1839, by Pietro Paolétti. (public domain)
'The Death of the First-Born of Egypt,' 1838-1839, by Pietro Paolétti. (public domain)

Much ink has been spilled over the question of Pharaoh’s heart and whether God took away Pharaoh’s free will in order to “multiply My miracle-signs in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 11:9). But what about Moses’ heart? How could he willingly carry out the last plague that killed all the firstborn?

Moses/Moshe knew the people of Egypt, perhaps more than any other living Hebrew. As prince he had power over countless servants, knew their families, their firstborns. Moshe also knows that Pharaoh will not send away the people before the final plague. He knows that so many innocent people, people he was familiar with and even family with, would die. He even knows that the Egyptians have begun to look with favor and graciousness upon the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 11:3).

How could he in good conscience announce the last plague? What happened to Moshe’s heart?

The problem of Pharaoh’s heart is not hard to solve. We know Pharaoh refuses to learn from others. We know he is a psychopathic tyrant, who does not hesitate to order all Israelite male babies to be thrown into the Nile river — the river which was a god to the Egyptians, and not something to pollute with death. God didn’t need to take away Pharaoh’s free will to accomplish the divine goal. It was enough for God to “strengthen Pharaoh’s heart / vay’chazeik et lev Par’o” (Exodus 11:10), so that Pharaoh would have the power to resist submitting to God’s will, and instead do “what he sought” to do naturally. As I wrote a few years ago, “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.”

But Moshe, Moshe who cared tenderly for each sheep, how could he carry out the last plague, without protest? A plague that will kill even the firstborn of “the slave-woman behind the millstones” (11:5) and “the captive in the dungeon” (12:29)? How did Moshe rationalize this tremendous, overwhelming, divine killing spree? Did he simply say to himself, “Pharaoh is the one responsible, not me, not God. It’s Pharaoh’s fault, he made this happen; he refused once more to let the people go. The blood is on Pharaoh’s hands, not on my hands!”

That sounds almost rational. But Moshe knows that God is manipulating Pharaoh’s already psychopathic heart. He cannot justly use Pharaoh’s cruelty as an excuse to kill so many innocents.

Moshe is also not like the people he leads: Moshe’s people are too traumatized by their harsh enslavement to reflect on the course of events. They are going through the motions of life while facing down overwhelming cruelty and death, “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah“, with their spirit diminished and shattered (Exodus 6:9). But Moshe is no slave, was never a slave. He should be the one person in this story who actually has “free will” to choose one way or the other, the only person whose decisions are not defined by accident of birth.

Perhaps this is the limitation Moshe alludes to when he says, “I am heavy-tongued” (Exodus 4:10). He knows he is not ready to be a prophet, because he knows he is not ready to talk back to God on behalf of others, to resist the divine will to destroy, as he must learn to do in order to save the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 32:32), after they worship the golden calf.

Eventually Moshe found his voice. But Moshe did not find his voice in time to save the many innocent Egyptians — v’hameivin yavin.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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