o the contemporary reader, the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is every bit as compelling as it was to readers centuries ago. And much like the rabbis as far back as 2,000 years ago, there is an aspect of this story that remains troubling for many of us today — God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, effectively compelling Pharaoh to continue to subject our ancestors to slavery, even when Pharaoh might have chosen to do otherwise.
God’s actions appear to interfere with the integrity of the story and its message, allowing Pharaoh an excuse for his continued tyranny and even rendering Pharaoh a sympathetic victim. Is it not God who, having hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the first five plagues, bears sole responsibility for both the continued enslavement of our ancestors and the resulting destruction of Egypt?
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins with God’s charge to Moses to call upon Pharaoh yet again, introducing the eighth plague. In the Torah’s recounting of the narrative, God tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart ... that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians ...” (Exodus 10:1-2).
But why would God want to make a mockery of the Egyptians? And why would God want succeeding generations to hear, and presumably retell, the story of how God did so? A commonly referenced talmudic answer to this question, attributed to the sage Resh Lakish, suggests there is a limit to God’s patience in awaiting one’s repentance; that given Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelite slaves after the first several plagues, God was unwilling thereafter to accept Pharaoh’s change of heart. However, this interpretation runs counter to many meaningful rabbinic sources who suggest that the gates of penitence and repair remain open, always, to the sincere of heart. Would Pharaoh have been insincere in his change of heart? We’ll never know, because God did not permit him the opportunity to correct his horrific subjugation of our ancestors, according to this interpretation. Wouldn’t our ancestors have been better off knowing with absolute certainty that Pharaoh and Egypt deserved their fate? Shouldn’t God have cared to find out?
Another interpretation suggests that God’s intent was to clarify for the Egyptians that there is a God to whom even their own king would succumb; that God is the redeeming force in the universe; that once unleashed by God, freedom’s will ultimately overcomes those who enslave and torment others, or seeks to do them even greater harm, and that such designs will lead to the obliteration of all aggressors. However, wouldn’t this point have been made just as powerfully and, perhaps, to a more enduring pedagogical effect, if Pharaoh had been granted the opportunity to see the error of his ways and then transform the Egyptians into a liberating people themselves? Surely this would have made for a story of enormous consequence, potentially encouraging the abolition of all tyranny in the world.
Liberation, as with security, is rarely — if ever — achieved without confronting with decisive power those who aim to terrorize, subjugate and destroy others.
It strikes me that the primary audience for God’s excessive pursuit of Pharaoh, even to the point of hardening his heart, was the slaves and not those who enslaved. It was the Israelites whose grandchildren were intended to hear and repeat this story, not the Egyptians. Perhaps, as a liberated people, there was a lasting lesson to be learned from overcoming a persistent and stubborn enemy with evil intent. Perhaps the challenge of outlasting tyrannical adversaries and their desire to conquer and even to destroy liberty and humanity is one with which liberated societies have an inherent difficulty, especially when tyrants and their followers or proxies extend a false hand toward reconciliation. Perhaps God prolonged Pharaoh’s refusal to free our ancestors, hardening his heart for all to see and retell, so we might never confuse the contrition of those sincerely repentant with the manipulation of those bent on our destruction. Perhaps God was helping our ancestors avoid a tendency to which free but weary people might be forever vulnerable — that of compromising with a seemingly repentant tyrant who might then survive to torment them, with even greater effect, in the future.
This past week, our brothers and sisters in Israel unilaterally ceased their fire against a treacherous enemy whose leaders state openly that their ideology values death over life, an enemy who seeks the destruction of Israel and the marginalization, at best, of all Jews everywhere. Israel stopped shooting in order to honor the new path of respect and shared interests that our new president aims to pursue with the Muslim world. The new administration seeks to pursue diplomacy with the Muslim world as a preferred strategy toward our own nation’s security, turning away from the perceived errors of ongoing confrontations with our adversaries.
We might be wise to remember what might have been God’s most important lesson of the exodus for our generation: There are those, like Hamas, Syria and Iran, whose hardened hearts no longer merit our olive branches, and extending them might make us more vulnerable and encourage evermore their evil designs, as they perceive our weariness for exactly what it is. For our own country’s sake, for Israel’s sake and for that of the entire free world, I pray this Shabbat that our new administration, led by a president who has instilled hope in so many, remembers God’s lesson that, as free but weary people, our willingness to compromise with evil may leave us unable to confront it in the not-too-distant future, when it will have grown stronger and we will have grown wearier.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit www.nertamid.com.