In this week’s portion, Va’era, we recount a well-known story from our Passover seder: the 10 plagues against Egypt. The first seven of the plagues appear in this week’s portion and the last three occur in next week’s reading.
Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites leave Egypt and even increases the slaves’ suffering. God brings on the plagues and the Egyptian people begin to suffer, yet Pharaoh remains stubborn time and again. The situation becomes even more complicated when we read a troublesome phrase, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” In fact, between this week and next week’s portion, this phrase is repeated 20 different times. Ten of these instances are connected to the first five plagues when we learn that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. But, in the second group of 10 references, appearing in the last five plagues, we learn that God is responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
This raises some difficult theological questions: Why would God do such a thing? Is Pharaoh able to exercise free will? Is he still able to repent? Is God causing more suffering to befall the Egyptians?
Our biblical commentators give many different explanations for God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Some suggest that God wanted to show Pharaoh the extreme outcome of his behavior. Others suggest that God gave Pharaoh painkillers, so Pharaoh would be immune to the plagues and could make his own moral choice, despite what was happening around him. And yet others suggest that hardening the heart is similar to moral erosion.
One of our third-century commentators, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, explains further that our tradition usually teaches us to give people three chances to change. Here God is being merciful and offers Pharaoh five opportunities to repent during the first five plagues. Unfortunately, Pharaoh allows his stubbornness and hate to rule him and his heart becomes sealed off from the will to change.
We may experience a similar phenomenon in our world today. At first, we all have the opportunity to exercise free will and choose between doing good or doing evil. But, if we choose destructive paths, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to the right and positive way. Yet, if we learn from Pharaoh’s mistakes and strive to do what is right – to treat people with kindness and compassion – then we can, in essence, exercise and harden our hearts for “good.”
Rabbi Sharon Marcus is a rabbi at The Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike.