Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Daf Shvui No. 115

Parashat Vaera

"And I Will Harden the Heart of Pharaoh"

Menachem ben Yashar

Department of Bible

The story of the plagues in Egypt poses a basic theological problem. God makes heavy/ hardens/ strengthens Pharaoh's heart so as to prevent him from freeing the Children of Israel but then he goes on to punish Pharaoh for not having freed them. Various modern commentaries* chose to define this issue not in theological but psychological or rhetorical terms, as a form of thinking or speaking which seeks to attribute all aspects of the miraculous to the Divine. While this phenomenon does indeed exist, we must keep in mind the that Torah is not a psychology textbook but a book dedicated to teaching the ways of serving G-d, and that its contents are organized for this purpose. In the example in question the use of the word "I" (Ani), which is extraneous from a grammatical standpoint, thus comes to emphasize Divine intervention in the narrative, indicating that this is indeed a theological matter - a Divine decision to harden Pharaoh's heart. Many midrashists and philosophers have dealt with this problem and their various solutions have been collected and categorized. One excellent presentation is the chapter on this subject in "Studies in Exodus" by Nechama Leibowitz (pages 110-117).

Both, Rashi (Exodus 7,3 based on the Midrash Shemot Rabbah 11,6 and 13,3) in his observation about the last five plagues, that the "making heavy" of Pharaoh's heart by G-d is specifically mentioned (albeit not altogether consistently, see Exodus 9,35 about the sixth plague), and Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 6, 1-5) apparently with regard to all the plagues, accept the midrashic approach (Shemot Rabbah 13,3) which implies that G-d does, in fact, sometimes take away the possible exercise of free will as an extreme form of punishment for sins previously committed by a person. This is done as a sort of "measure for measure", making the punishment fit the crime: a hardening of the heart by G-d, as a fit punishment for a person's previous voluntary, hardening of his own heart..

However, human free will and free choice, specifically the religious choice between good and evil, is a basic, accepted tenet of Judaism. For this reason the explanations of Rashi and Maimonides are not universally accepted. Let us consider for example, the opinion of Abarbanel (Exodus 7,3) who followed Maimonides in most things, but who occasionally differed with him on critical theological issues,as he does here.

"This opinion from the midrash and from the wisest of our authors seems strange to me and exceedingly difficult in the light of what the prophets taught us about the ways of the Holy One Blessed Be He, since they all prophesied with one voice that G-d does not desire the death of a wicked person, but rather that he repent from his ways and live (see Ezekiel 18) as it is said: "Return, O wayward children, and I will heal your waywardness" ( see Jeremiah 3,22), and the Psalmist said: "G-d is good and just, therefore He shows sinners the way" (Psalms 25,8). Moreover, this seems particularly strange on the part of the teacher himself (i.e. Maimonides), who wrote in the Book of Knowledge (Laws of Repentance, chap. 4) of those who have no portion in the world to come, ending with these words (halacha 5): "the foregoing applies to those who died without repenting, but if they repented of their sins and then died, they are among those who will be in the world to come for there is nothing more powerful than repentance...". The ancient sages were of the same opinion, therefore it is written in the Mishnah (Avot 2,10). "Repent even one day before your death...". It is thus quite unthinkable that the Holy One Blessed Be He would say to an evildoer "continue to do evil", as might appear to be the case with Pharaoh...".

It should be explained that Abarbanel here is not questioning the actions of G-d, the Righteous Judge, or asking how He could prevent someone from repenting but instead cause him to sin, and then punish him for doing so. We have neither the right nor the capacity to question the ways of the Creator, since we are incapable of understanding His essence or traits. Rather, Abrabanel is questioning the Torah, which was given to us to teach us the ways of serving G-d. There is no point to the commandments or to the promise of a reward for those who observe them or the threat of retribution to those who transgress them, without the basic principle of human free will. It is difficult to accept the idea that the Torah would present us with stories or statements which contradict this basic principle.

Abarbanel proposes three possible solutions, three ways of explaining the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. The first two are, in his view, of lesser importance and only in his third suggestion does he begin with the words "And the more correct way in my opinion ...". Here he explains that G-d hardens Pharaoh's heart not at the onset of the plagues but after they are over, for it is at these junctures, at the end of each plague, that the Torah speaks of hardening Pharaoh's heart. Since each plague ends several days after its inception, and Pharaoh still has not freed the Israelites, he can then mistakenly conclude that the plague was only a natural disaster (which Moses, as a magician or scientist, might well have been able to predict in advance). It was this that allowed Pharaoh to harden his own heart to the G-d's demands. In other words what G-d provided for Pharaoh was the opportunity - and perhaps the temptation - to harden his own heart .

Similar explanations of the cause of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart - though not specifically connected to the way the plagues ended - are offered by Rabbi Yosef Albo in the "Sefer Ha-ikkarim" (4, 25) and by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno in his commentary to Exodus"(3,7). Moreover, the idea of temptation at the end of the plague is found in the exegesis in Devarim Rabbah (7,9; Lieberman ed., p.112): "[The plagues are called] "the signs" (hamofetim) (Deut. 29,2) because the plagues did indeed tempt them ( mfatot otam). How so? A plague would come every thirty days and last seven days and then depart. And they would have relief for twenty three days between the plagues and so did not repent. Thus, the plagues tempted them. .

We can now expand upon the commentary of Abarbanel: after Pharaoh had promised Moses during the first plagues that he would free Israel, but no sooner had the plague been removed by Moses' prayer, then Pharaoh reneged on his promise and did not free them. Logic ought to have dictated that Moses no longer believe him and say from then on: I will not pray for the removal of the plague before you actually do free the people. Had G-d commanded Moses to do so, Israel would indeed have been freed, but that other, basic purpose of the plagues would not have been attained: that Pharaoh and Egypt (as representatives of the pagan world) should come to know the greatness of G-d and recognize His Mastery. Pharaoh would have surrendered not because of a recognition of the truth but because of the brutal pressure of the plague which he was unable to withstand. It is for this reason that in most of the plagues, immediately after Pharaoh turns to Moses for help, Moses prays and the plague is removed. Once the pressure is removed free will and choice are restored to Pharaoh. He can choose to submit to G-d and recognize His sovereignty, or continue stubbornly to deny it. Thus G-d enables Pharaoh to harden his heart at the end of each plague. This is what is meant by G-d hardening his heart but in fact, G-d was really restoring Pharaoh's free will by freeing him from the pressure of the plague.

Pharaoh's hardening of his own heart, and G-d's hardening of it indirectly, are thus one and the same. This is clear from Exodus 10,1 (where G-d "makes h...") which is specifically connected and identified with Exodus 9, 34-35 (where Pharaoh "strengthened and made heavy...")

This is how we should view the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in most of the plagues; however, the first plagues are somewhat different. Here G-d gives power to Pharaoh's magicians to reproduce something of the miracles done by Aaron, albeit not at the same level. This makes Pharaoh believe that Aaron (whose name seems to be of Egyptian origin) is no more than another magician, perhaps more expert and zealous than the others, and therefore Pharaoh sees no obligation to heed the words of G-d.

The hardening of the hearts of Sichon (Deut. 2,30) and of the Kings of Canaan Joshua 11,20) should be explained in the same manner, mutatis mutandis, and their explanations will be examined at the proper occasion.

Note: * Shmuel David Lutzatto, in his Commentary to the Torah, Tel Aviv, 1966, pages 237-238; M.D. Cassuto, Commentary on the book of Exodus, Jerusalem, 1952. p.76.

Translated by: Phil Lerman

Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak