- But Pharaoh became more stubborn this time also and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:28)
- But Adonai stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as Adonai had told Moses. (Exodus 9:12)
The narrative segment about the Ten Plagues is one of the most fascinating sections of the entire Torah. To this day, the description of these events engages us on several levels. We are captivated by the great power of God who forged the spectacular redemption of our ancestors, and we are, at the same time, confronted with the reality of our emotional responses that are generated by these events. The character of Pharaoh is a focal point in this narrative. Pharaoh transitions from being all-powerful and in total control to being a mere actor under God’s control. Initially Pharaoh made his own decisions and was unmoved by the plagues. Even after they had intensified and he considered freeing the Israelites, he changed his mind. However, as the cumulative effect of the plagues began to cause great hardship for the Egyptians, Pharaoh made a personal decision to release the Israelites. But God prevented him from doing so by “stiffening his heart.” Why was this done? What was the justification for the suffering of ordinary Egyptians? What does all this mean to us today?
Throughout the entire sequence, the plagues build in their intensity, and their impact is compounded. They serve to impress the Israelites and the Egyptians with the power of God. Initially everyone in the land of Egypt was affected, but the later plagues were directed solely at the Egyptians, sparing the Israelites. The plagues attacked and disrupted every facet of Egyptian society, culture, economic activity, and religion.
The Egyptians viewed Pharaoh as a god. His defeat at the hands of the God of the lowly Israelites was a severe blow. It brought about the complete and total disruption of Egyptian society. It also empowered the Israelites.
For over 400 years the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Unlike the Egyptian deities that had forms and images that included Pharaoh himself, Adonai was unseen and unknowable to humans. The Israelites’ faith was weak, at best. Thus the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt was not merely physical: It was also spiritual. Furthermore, the Israelites’ redemption was meant to send a message to the Egyptians and the rest of the world that affirmed the existence and power of the true God.
Pharaoh is pivotal to the story. He not only embodies ultimate power in Egyptian theology but also represents man’s belief in human supremacy. The plague sequence can be viewed as a battle between Pharaoh and God that represents a battle between humans and God. It is, therefore, a battle whose outcome was predetermined. Thus it can be surmised that the message for us is similarly true: The fact that ordinary Egyptians suffered during the plagues serves to illustrate the point that worshiping false powers will result in severe and unpleasurable consequences.
The long-term effect of the Exodus is that it remains the premier event in the formation of our national identity. We make frequent references to it in the daily recitation of the G’ulah (Redemption) prayer and in the Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays. The exciting buildup of the plagues leading to the Exodus is also central to the celebration of the Passover seder. While the liturgical references illustrate the enduring nature of a highly dramatic tale, the way we view God today in light of the Exodus and the plagues story is an open issue.
We as modern Jews tend to reject both the mind control of Pharaoh by God and the collective punishment of the Egyptians as viable in our world. Yet we believe that this event did take place in ancient days and that these acts were entirely appropriate at the time. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? The question goes to the essence of what it is to be a modern Jew. We must wrestle with two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the presence of an all-powerful figure of God gives us a sense of security: The world is a rough place and we don’t want to be entirely alone in it. On the other hand, we perceive ourselves to be rational: We don’t believe in supernatural acts. We think that disasters are either acts of nature or human-made. We believe that the saving of lives is due to medical science and is not God’s answer to our prayers. Yet we continue to pray. Somehow we manage to live simultaneously with both ideas. Perhaps we view the experiences of Pharaoh as a cautionary tale. As with all good questions, there are many answers, and we are nobler for having engaged in the struggle to respond to them.
BY THE WAY…
It is possible that during the first plagues, the magicians hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to pride themselves in their wisdom. But now that they did not come before him and there was none to help him and to uphold him [see Isaiah 63:5] in his folly except his iniquities that ensnared him [see Proverbs 5:22], it was God who hardened his heart. It is possible that Scripture is alluding to that which our Rabbis have explained [Exodus Rabbah 11:7], i.e., that during the first plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was of his own doing [and was not, as stated before, caused by the magicians, who were proud of their arts] and now it was (rightfully) caused by God, as I have explained above. This is the true explanation. (Nachmanides, Ramban Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, translated and annotated by Charles B. Chavel, New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1973, p. 95)
Harden his heart, or Make his heart strong, i.e., stubborn. This does not mean that God on purpose made Pharaoh sinful. For God to make it impossible for a man to obey Him and then punish him for his disobedience would be both unjust and contrary to the fundamental Jewish belief in freedom of the will. (J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentaries, London: Soncino Press, 1976, p. 220)
How do each of the scenarios presented by Nachmanides regarding the stiffening of Pharaoh’s heart affect the meaning of the plagues for you?
If Pharaoh, according to Rabbi Hertz, had free will to avoid sinfulness, how then are we to understand the statement that “Adonai stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:12)?
Matt Friedman is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Harim at the Nevada County Jewish Community Center, Grass Valley, CA.