Of the multitude of interesting concepts in the story of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, perhaps one of the most intriguing is the interaction between God and Pharaoh. Though Pharaoh never actually speaks directly to God, nor God to him, the heart of the story is the ‘battle for supremacy’, as it were, between them. Meanwhile, Moses serves as the intermediary, going back and forth between God and Pharaoh, relaying messages and declaring judgments.
We know that God is, was and will always be the Sovereign. Were it not for Pharaoh’s arrogance and his self-aggrandisement, one could almost feel sympathy for him. From the vantage point of history and of faith, as we read the account we quickly see the absurdity of Pharaoh’s position. The man has no clue Who he is up against! Nor does he entertain the possibility that he could be overcome!
However, Pharaoh doesn’t stand a chance. Not only can the Holy One of Israel turn the Nile into blood, He controls all of nature and can turn it however He deems necessary to set His children free.
The high point of the unfolding drama is when we read that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
Some people ask, “How can that be fair? If God hardened his heart, how can he be blamed for rebelling against Him? And besides, if God gave us free choice as the great gift that it is, how could He violate that law for the purpose of the Divine Plan for Israel?
The cornerstone of biblical thought regarding the nature of man is the gift of free will; or to say it another way, our ability to choose our thoughts, words and actions. According to Maimonides, life without such freedom would be meaningless. If man were simply programmed to perform various actions, he would have no responsibility for those actions, and life itself would be futile at best, inane at worst. We would simply be breathing robots.
But that is not how Hashem created mankind. Each human being has the inestimable gift of free will, the opportunity each day of our lives to choose whether we do good or do evil, whether we use our tongues for inspiration or degradation, whether we focus on that which is positive or wallow in all that is negative. The ability to choose is our greatest privilege….and also our greatest responsibility.
We read in the Midrash: “…when God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then God closes his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he failed to heed, God then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your uncleanness.'” (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3)
Here is the key: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God was itself the punishment, and not, as we assumed, merely the impetus for Pharaoh’s actions for which he was ultimately punished. The punishment Pharaoh actually receives is quite exact, measure for measure. After repeated warnings, Pharaoh closed his heart and ignored God’s messages. Therefore, Pharaoh was punished by losing that sensitivity of heart which he had hardened himself.
In Tune with Torah this week = this is the last Shabbat of the western year 2013. In the next few days many people will be looking forward to a new year, planning and hoping for a better year than the last one. More important than a list of resolutions that often get forgotten by the end of January would be to focus on this very issue that brought Pharaoh’s downfall: How well do I listen to God’s promptings and warnings? Do I ignore that still small voice within or do I listen to the urging of my conscience to do what is right and honorable before God and men? What will I choose in 2014?
May the God of Israel grant that each of us will walk “in tune” with all that He speaks to our hearts and minds in the year to come and that we will choose godliness and righteousness day by day.