The Mishkan in the Wilderness, Public Domain via WikiMedia Commons
The dramatic duel between Moses and Pharaoh in the Torah is depicted in the Ten Plagues which G-d inflicted on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews, as they were then called, to leave Egypt, become a free and independent nation, receive the Torah, and resettle in their homeland, Eretz Yisrael.
But Pharaoh resists until the last plague, even though he acknowledges G-d. Biblical commentators have understood the process as a growing awareness by Pharaoh and his court, the Egyptian people, and the Jewish people of a revolution in the history of mankind: freedom and the importance of human dignity. But Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the Jews to leave is complicated by G-d’s intervention: He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart" (Exodus 7:3). It would seem, therefore, that Pharaoh did not have true free will. Rashi notes that the process of increasing punishments was necessary to demonstrate G-d’s power – not only to the Egyptians, but to the Jews. He notes that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh himself was responsible for his hardening heart. In addition, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” (Exodus 7:13) and then became “heavy” (Exodus 7:14).
Why does the Torah use three different words to describe what amounts to a single description of his stubborn obstinacy?
Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), in his Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, insists that everyone has free will; one can choose to do good, or evil. The ability to choose freely defines us as human beings, and our choices define us as individuals. Freedom to choose is an essential and inherent right, but it is not absolute as there are consequences to actions. This explains why three different words are used to describe Pharaoh’s heart. He changes his mind, perhaps from lack of awareness and fear of losing a valuable commodity — his slaves. It’s understandable, given his position. That is what is meant by “hardening” and “heavy.” He refuses to change, even though he recognizes G-d’s existence.
But then he becomes recalcitrant and arrogant – which is described as “his heart was strengthened.” The key to understanding this psychological debilitation — and what Torah teaches — is Pharaoh’s lack of self-criticism. The ability to choose, to exercise free will without honest self-evaluation and introspection, is self-destructive and destructive to others. In Pharaoh’s case, he led his army and his nation to disaster. Persecuting Jews, however, is not unique to Pharaoh. There will always be Jew-hating pharaohs and those who serve them. They can be overcome by our unity, by caring for each other, and by our commitment to the ideals and principles that have guided the Jewish people for millennia. Rather than despair, the story of the Exodus suggests that we watch the “Hand of G-d” at work, and never forget that — despite difficulties — we are not alone.
In a modern miracle, the Jewish people has returned to its homeland, established Jewish sovereignty, and are building the third Jewish civilization and commonwealth. We have much for which to be thankful. We are blessed with wise and caring teachers and with courageous soldiers who risk their lives to defend and protect us. Millions of true Zionists refuse to be intimidated by threats from foreign enemies. Many good, decent people throughout the world want our nation not only to survive, but to prevail. We are, after all, in G-d’s hands.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, As Far As the Eye Can See, was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.