I want to talk about the big moral problem in out parasha: “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart.
It seems horribly unjust for the G-d of justice to punish Pharaoh for not letting the Hebrews go, if G-d Himself kept Pharaoh from making the right choice. It’s so disturbing, that some modern commentators (Umberto Casuto and Shadal, for example) translate ויחזק ה׳ את לב פרעה as simply an idiom for “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”, like we would say “an act of G-d” without implying any active Divine intervention. Seforno (followed by Artscroll) translates ויחזק as “strengthened”, meaning that ה׳ made Pharaoh brave enough to not be intimidated by the plagues, so he could make an independent moral choice.
These seem more cute than convincing. The text certainly reads as though ה׳ took away Pharaoh’s free will. And that’s just wrong.
But why is it wrong? The argument that it is specifically unjust is based on what Rabbi Shulman would call and “optical illusion”. An unjust punishment would be if ה׳ demanded that Pharaoh “let my people go”, threatened to punish him if he did not, then kept him from letting them go and punished him anyway.
That’s not what happened. The story that happens over and over again is that ה׳ (through Moses) warns Pharaoh that if he does not let the people go, a plague will be sent. Pharaoh then refuses to let them go—no mention of “hardening of the heart”. Then he is punished with a plague. It’s only after the plague that Pharaoh looks at the damage, ויחזק לב פרעה, and he doesn’t change his mind. The only punishment is for a crime committed of his free will.
So if it’s not unjust, why does it bother us so much? I think that it is because removing free will is cruel and unusual punishment. Free will is what makes us human:
And the Rambam explains that it is exactly this that was Pharaoh’s punishment: his free will to do תשובה was taken away:
It’s important to note that this punishment doesn’t come until the end of the sequence of plagues:
|תנין||וַיֶּחֱזַק לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם||שמות ז:יג|
|דם||וַיֶּחֱזַק לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם||ז:כב|
|צפרדע||וְהַכְבֵּד את לבו ולא שמע אלהם||ח:יא|
|כנים||וַיֶּחֱזַק לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם||ח:טו|
|ערוב||וַיַּכְבֵּד פרעה את לבו גם בפעם הזאת||ח:כח|
|דבר||וַיִּכְבַּד לב פרעה||ט:ז|
|שחין||וַיְחַזֵּק ה׳ את לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם||ט:יב|
|ברד||וַיֶּחֱזַק לב פרעה||ט:לה|
|ארבה||וַיְחַזֵּק ה׳ את לב פרעה||י:כ|
|חשך||וַיְחַזֵּק ה׳ את לב פרעה||י:כז|
|בכורות||ויאמר קומו צאו מתוך עמי||יב:לא|
Apparently, ה׳ takes away Pharaoh’s free will in שחין, returns it in ברד, then removes it for ארבה and חשך. And I think that is the key to understand what is going on. The warning before ברד is long and complex:
and while it is one paragraph, the division into aliyot splits it after פסוק טז. The first part doesn’t deal with ברד at all:
There are some readings of Rashi that read בִּכּוֹרוֹת, ”first fruits“, or בצורת, ”famine“ for בְּכוֹרוֹת, ”firstborn“, to connect this with the destruction of the crops in ברד. But the Maharal rejects this:
ברד is the beginning of the last sequence of plagues, and it is Pharaoh’s last chance. שחין was a taste of what it meant to lose ones humanity, ones free will. Moshe now tells Pharaoh that it’s now all over: בפעם הזאת אני שלח את כל מגפתי. But ה׳ will give him another chance: the test of ברד. The choice is absolutely stark: be a ירא את דבר ה׳ or not.
Rav Hutner explains why losing ones free will is the appropriate מדה כנגד מדה punishment for refusing to accept ה׳'s sovereignty:
A מלך is not only a ruler but also a representative of his subjects. Our בחירה is our צלם אלוקים, our connection to the Divine. Making ה׳ מלך על כל העולם is the ultimate purpose of our בחירה, and when Pharaoh rejects ה׳'s command, he loses the reason for having free will in the first place. The parasha ends with Pharaoh’s dramatic failure, setting up יציאת מצרים next week: