Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

PARASHAT VA'ERA 5763/ January 4, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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PARASHAT VA'ERA 5763/ January 4, 2003
"With A Heavy Heart"

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
Institute of Jewish Studies
University College, London

The general pattern of the ten plagues, repeated many times, is as follows: Moshe or Aharon are instructed to institute a plague, which they then bring down on the Egyptians. Pharaoh promises to let the children of Israel go if only Moshe will call off the plague. Moshe then does so, whereupon Pharaoh "hardens" his heart and changes his mind. How are we to understand this "hardening of the heart"?

Even before the first plague, when Pharaoh refuses to recognise the sign of Aharon's staff changed into a serpent (or crocodile), God says: "Pharaoh's heart is heavy, he refuses to let the people go" (Exod. 7:14) - kaved lev Par'oh, me'en leshalah et ha'am. It seems to mean the same as the previous verse: "and the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened" - Vayehezaq lev Par'oh (7:13), with the change of a verb, kaved instead of hazaq.

This alternation between the verbs continues: After the removal of the first plague, Pharaoh's heart is strengthened - vayehezaq lev Par'oh (7.22), but after Moshe's removal of the frogs of the second plague, Pharaoh's heart is made heavy -vehakhbed et libbo (8:11). Again after the third plague Pharaoh's heart is strengthened - vayehezaq lev Par'oh (8:15) but after removal of the fourth plague, he'arov, Pharaoh goes back on his promise and makes his heart heavy again,

After the fifth plague, Pharaoh's heart is heavy again - vayikhbad lev Par'oh (9:7) and similarly after the seventh plague of hail. When he sees that Moshe has halted the hail and thunderstorms, both Pharaoh and his court make their hearts heavy - vayakhbed libbo, hu' ve'avadav (9:34). However, after the sixth plague, that of boils, we find: Vayyehazzeq Hashem, "the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh" (9:12).

In some cases Pharaoh's heart "steels itself" (hazaq) but in five instances it is "made heavy", using the root kaved. In one instance, before the plagues, Hashem literally says: "I shall harden the heart of Pharaoh" - Va'ani 'aksheh 'et lev Par'oh (7:3), using the causative Hif'il form, and in the sixth plague we found the active Pi'el form—"the Lord stiffened the heart" (9:12). We can understand it when Hashem "strengthens" or "stiffens" Pharaoh's heart but how are we to understand the action when the verb is not causative or active but a stative form--Pharaoh literally "makes his (own) heart heavy", using the word kaved? It appears that this change of root and form (binyan) is deliberate, and an explanation for the variations can be found in the Egyptian mythology of preparation for the after-life.

Each Egyptian of rank or substance in the New Kingdom period would have a scroll, or "Book of the Dead", prepared for him or her, to be placed in his coffin to guide him through the underworld to the after-life. One of the first major rituals on this journey was "the Weighing of the Heart". In the process of mummification, the vital organs were removed and placed in four canopic jars, one of them containing the heart. Before the deceased could be presented to Osiris, Pharaoh of the Underworld, he or she had to be proved worthy, and to do this, the heart had to be shown to be lighter than a feather. This weighing was done in a ceremony conducted under the supervision of the scribe-god Thoth, who declares, after a successful ritual: "Hear ye this judgment. The heart of (the one who comes before) Osiris hath in very truth been weighed..... it has been found true by trial in the Great Balance. There has not been found any wickedness in him, he has not wasted the offerings in the temples, he has not done harm by his deeds, and he has uttered no evil reports while he was upon earth" (E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead, 1899, reprint 1985, p. 26).

This description and the illustration (Fig.1) is from the Papyrus of Ani (c. 1250 BCE, British Museum No. 10,470). On the left you see Ani the scribe, followed by his wife Thuthu, coming to the judgment. In most cases, the deceased is introduced by Horus, but here it seems that Thuthu, still alive, is seeing her husband go off to his fate. In the centre, the jackal-headed god Anubis, in charge of the mummification process, is conducting the Weighing. He is adjusting the balance with his right hand, closely watched by a small baboon, Thoth's assistant, who sits on top of the central pillar, to see that fair play is done. Above him sit a row of twelve supervisory gods, representing the twelve hours of the night. In the left-hand scale is the canopic jar containing Ani's heart and in the right-hand scale, the feather of Ma'at, the goddess symbolic of truth and good order. Standing to the right is the ibis-headed god Thoth, who is recording the result of the weighing on his palette. Behind him to the right is the monster Ammut, with the head of a crocodile, the shoulders of a leopard and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus, the three most feared local animals. If the deceased fails the heart test, he or she is gobbled up by Ammut. If, however, the heart is found to be lighter than the feather, the deceased may proceed on to the underworld. The next drawing in Ani's Book of the Dead shows him being introduced by Horus, the Pharaoh of the living, to Osiris, judge and Pharaoh of the dead, who will now rule his 'life' in the underworld.

This example demonstrates that in Egyptian terms a heavy heart is equivalent to perpetrating evil. We can then see that the term vayakhbed Par'oh et libbo means that Pharaoh made his heart turn to evil. It will be noted that in all cases of the use of the root kaved, it is only Pharaoh who does this to his heart; and there is one case where Hashem says that Pharaoh's heart has already turned heavy-- kaved (7:14). When Hashem operates on Pharaoh's heart it is by Hif'il aksheh or Pi'el hizzeq (7:3, 9:12).

This could help us to answer the old question, How could Hashem punish Pharaoh when it was He who caused Pharaoh's stubbornness? In fact, in at least five cases, where the root kaved is used, it was Pharaoh himself who "made his heart heavy (with evildoing)", and so it was that Pharaoh added that extra ingredient of evildoing over and above the stubbornness willed by Hashem.

This use of the term of "making the heart heavy" is used in only one other case in the Tenakh, when the Philistines are advised to return the Ark to the Israelites after the battle of Eben-ezer: "Don't harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts" Velamah tekhabbedu et levavkhem ka'asher kibbedu mitsraim uphar'oh et libbam? (I Samuel 6:6). The use of the term with reference to original Egyptian context underlines once more that this was an Egyptian metaphor for the perpetration of evil.