The Perils of Stubbornness

Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16

D'Var Torah By: Lawrence A. Englander


  • Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship Adonai their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7)
  • Then Adonai said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky, and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21–23)


We generally admire people who adhere to their principles even in the face of opposition. However, when they doggedly refuse to change their minds even when they are presented with convincing evidence to the contrary, we tend to lose patience: They have crossed the line between being determined and being just plain stubborn. A midrash teaches: “Those who stubbornly refuse to learn from the negative consequences of their behavior will suffer doubly for their stubbornness” (Seder Eliahu Rabbah, p.12).

When rulers and government leaders display a stubborn streak, the consequences can be magnified. Such is the case with Pharaoh. A series of plagues descends upon Egypt, yet he continues to harden his heart and refuses to release the Israelites from slavery. When Moses and Aaron come to warn Pharaoh about the eighth plague, a swarm of locusts that will descend upon the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s advisers decide to intervene. “How long shall this one be a snare to us?” they ask him. “Let the men go to worship Adonai their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7). According to the commentary K’li Yakar, the advisers’ question “How long?” (Ad matai?) echoes the charge made to Pharaoh just a few verses earlier by Moses and Aaron: “Thus says Adonai, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?’” (Exodus 10:3). K’li Yakar intimates that Pharaoh was so obsessed with his game of one-upmanship with Moses that he was unable to perceive a greater will, a divine will, behind the series of plagues. Thus Pharaoh’s intransigence was bringing much suffering upon his own people.

As a result, a ninth plague, that of darkness, followed in the train of the locusts. Midrash Tanchuma (Va-eira, chapter 14) states, “This darkness was doubled and redoubled. If an Egyptian was standing, he was unable to sit; if sitting, he was unable to stand; if lying down, he was unable to rise.” Because of Pharaoh’s constant refusals, his people were smothered by the darkness of inertia: They were unable even to help themselves.

Such is the consequence that leaders bring upon their people when they ignore advice, evidence, and reason in order to pursue a personal vendetta against an enemy. This kind of stubbornness is all too common in politics today. Dictators have impoverished their countries while building up stockpiles of weapons to subdue the nations they loathe. A fixation upon the enemy renders them oblivious to the suffering of their own people.

Of course, it’s easy to identify such leaders when we ourselves are the target of their hatred. However, the Pharaohs of the world do not have a monopoly on stubbornness. How capable are we of detecting the same type of personal vendetta among those whom we consider to be on our side? What negative consequences might their obsessions bring upon us? Who are their advisers?


  • How thick was this darkness? Our Rabbis said: It was as thick as a dinar [a gold coin], as Scripture states, “A darkness that can be touched”: There was substance to it. (Exodus Rabbah 14:1)

  • From where did this darkness come? Rabbi Judah says: A darkness from above, as Scripture (Psalms 18:12) states, “God made darkness as a screen. Dark clouds, dense clouds of the sky were a pavilion round about God.” Rabbi Nechemia says: The darkness of Geihinom, as Scripture (Job 10:22) states, “A land whose light is darkness,/All gloom and disarray.” (Exodus Rabbah 14:2)

  • Enemies are dangerous because they consume energy and attention. Also, it’s possible to become hypnotized by the thing we hate and stare at it for a lifetime…. When being against becomes more important than being with or for, the enemy has destroyed the independence of your personality. (Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life through Writing and Storytelling, New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989)

  • When God wishes to break the wicked, God shows them the supernal radiance. Since they have no Torah or mitzvot to serve as garments to elevate them to a higher level, they are defeated…. In this way we explain the verse “A darkness that can be touched.” For the word v’yamesh teaches that God “put aside” the contracted divine radiance [tzimtzum] to let God’s full light shine upon them. Those who had no Torah and mitzvot were defeated; but those who did have these garments “enjoyed light in their dwellings.” This is how to understand the talmudic teaching (N’darim 8b): “In time to come, the Holy Blessed One will bring the sun out from its hiddenness. The righteous will be healed by it, and the wicked will be judged by it.” (from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, K’dushat Levi, Bo, p. 105)


  1. Normally we perceive darkness to be the absence of light. Yet Exodus Rabbah depicts darkness as having substance. Do you ever feel a darkness in your own life that is so heavy it weighs you down? What is its source? From where do you find the light to illuminate it?

  2. Have you ever been so “hypnotized” or obsessed by something you hate that you lost your perspective? What helped you emerge from the darkness into the light?

  3. In a brilliant reversal, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggests that the darkness experienced by the wicked is actually an overwhelming presence of divine light—a situation that is similar to one’s looking at the sun without protective lenses. Approaching God, like approaching the sun, requires preparation, without which we can be plunged into an abyss. What “garments” have you acquired to help you mediate God’s light into your life?

Lawrence A. Englander has been the rabbi of Solel Congregation, Mississauga, ON, since its inception in 1973. He is also the chair of the HUC-CCAR Joint Commission for Sustaining Rabbinic Education.

Reference Materials

Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448-471; Revised Edition, pp. 405-426;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 355-378
Haftarah, Jeremiah 46:13-28

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 700-702; Revised Edition, pp. 427-429


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