by Helyn Steppa
In this week’s parsha, Va’eira, we see the first incident of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Most people, from medieval commentators to modern readers, struggle with this concept. If this is a story about God saving a nation and rescuing them from slavery, why would God make this job more difficult? Is it not already a challenge to convince both a people trapped in a slave mentality as well as those that wish to enslave them that freeing these people is a good idea? Furthermore, what is the benefit of God making it more difficult to achieve God’s ideals?
Rashi offers an answer that can seem somewhat harsh and problematic to a contemporary ear. He posits that God makes Pharaoh act even more wickedly so that He could increase the signs and miracles used to fight back. This apparently would not only cause the nations to fear God, but also suffer punishments for their sins and fear Bnei Yisrael in their hearts. Basically, God causes Pharaoh to increase his own wickedness in order to reaffirm that Am Yisrael is morally superior but downtrodden, and that God punishes their oppressors for their actions.
The Ibn Ezra similarly says that Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to prevent Pharoah from doing teshuva. This is because God created every human with free will, and Pharoah has ample time to repent or change his ways, but chooses to remain the same. Therefore, God prevents Pharaoh from being able to repent, so God can strike Egypt with more miraculous plagues. This leads back to Rashi’s idea that God wanted to perform more miracles in order to punish the Egyptians and strike fear in their hearts.
The question still remains though: is this fair of God to do? What’s the point of Moshe warning Pharaoh before plagues if God has already predetermined his answer?
Rav Yaakov Medan points out that the ironic and inevitable back and forth between Moshe, Aharon, and Pharoah involves astounding naivete on Moshe and Aharon’s part as well as striking deceptiveness on Pharaoh’s account. While Moshe and Aharon immediately believe Pharaoh when he offers to free Bnei Yisrael after the second plague, Pharaoh is given multiple chances to release Bnei Yisrael with no consequences and repeatedly lies and refuses. The Rambam actually uses this as a source that the retraction of free will is a form of punishment for conscious and repeated sin.
From this, we can learn two things. Firstly, we should be cautious when dealing with others. While there should always be room for dialogue and trust, we cannot expect God to miraculously handle everything nor can we naively take everyone at their word. Furthermore, we must constantly search for opportunities to do teshuva and take advantage of them whenever possible. Once we have repeatedly done something wrong, we not only get into the habit of wrongdoing, but we also experience a spiritual obstacle from God that makes repentance difficult. Let us remember to always improve our actions and habits before they become insurmountable.