Parshat Vaeira: Moshe’s efforts to persuade Paroh

“And Paroh’s heart was strong and he did not listen to them, as Hashem had spoken. And Hashem said to Moshe, “Paroh’s heart is heavy; he has refused to send forth the nation.” (Shemot 7:13-14)

Parshat Vaeira describes Moshe’s efforts to persuade Paroh to release Bnai Yisrael. Most of the plagues are described in this parasha. Each of these plagues was miraculous. Each afflicted the Egyptians with suffering and misery. Each demonstrated that Moshe was Hashem’s prophet. Nonetheless, Paroh withstood these plagues and remained steadfast in his refusal to release Bnai Yisrael.

Our passage describes Paroh’s response to the first of the wonders that Moshe and Aharon performed before him. Moshe and Aharon appear before Paroh. Aharon throws his staff to the ground and it is transformed into a serpent. Paroh instructs his magicians to duplicate Aharon’s feat. They throw their staffs to the ground and they also are transformed into serpents. But Aharon’s serpent swallows the serpents of the magician.

Our pasuk tells us that Paroh was unmoved by this demonstration. The Torah uses two terms to describe Paroh’s reaction. First, we are told that Paroh’s heart was strong. Then, Hashem speaks to Moshe and describes Paroh’s heart as heavy. Apparently, these two descriptions are intended to communicate two ideas regarding Paroh’s obstinacy. However, the precise difference between these two ideas – that Paroh’s heart was strong and it was heavy – is not completely clear.

In order to understand the meaning of these two terms it is useful to first consider a related issue: Until the sixth plague, each time that the Torah refers to Paroh’s “strong heart,” the Torah tells us that Paroh’s heart was strong. However, with the advent of the plague of shechin – boils – the Torah introduces a different phraseology.

“But Hashem strengthened Paroh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, as Hashem had spoken to Moshe.” (Shemot 9:12)

After experiencing the plague of shechin, the Torah does not tell us that Paroh’s heart was strong. Instead, we are told that Hashem made Paroh’s heart strong. This seems to imply that until this plague Paroh’s obstinacy was “self-induced.” Now, Hashem is inducing Paroh’s obstinacy. What had changed? Why was it now necessary for Hashem to influence Paroh’s reaction and reinforce his obstinacy? Nachmanides discusses this issue: He contends that there was a basic difference between the initial wonders performed by Moshe and Aharon and the last five plagues. In order to understand this distinction, it is helpful to review these initial miracles.

Let us return to the first wonder performed by Moshe and Aharon. Both Aharon and Paroh’s magicians performed wondrous transformations. However, there was a distinction between their feats. Aharon’s serpent consumed the serpents created by the Egyptian magicians. Rashbam suggests that despite this distinction, Paroh concluded that there was no fundamental difference between the wonder performed by Moshe and Aharon and the transformation executed by his magicians. He assumed that both were achieved through magic or illusion.[1]

“And the magicians of Egypt did likewise with their secret rites, and Paroh’s heart was strong, and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken.” (Shemot 7:22)

The first plague brought about by Moshe and Aharon was the transformation of all uncovered water in Egypt into blood. Again, Paroh’s magicians claimed that they too could perform this transformation. They filled a vessel with water and transformed it into blood. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra notes that there was a substantial difference between the wonder performed by Moshe and Aharon and the trick of the Egyptian magicians. The magicians did succeed in turning a small amount of water directly in front of them into blood. However, Moshe and Aharon transformed all the uncovered water in the land into blood. Furthermore, the phenomenon that they brought about was lasting. As new water flowed into the land, it too was transformed into blood.[2] Rashi explains that despite this obvious distinction, Paroh chose to view both transformations as essentially equal. He asserted that Moshe and Aharon’s methods were no different from those of the magicians.[3]

“And the magicians did likewise with their secret rites to bring out the lice, but they could not, and the lice were upon man and beast. And the magicians said to Paroh, “It is the finger of God,” but Paroh’s heart remained strong, and he did not listen to them, as Hashem had spoken.” (Shemot 8:14-15)

Aharon struck the dust and lice were brought forth. These lice infested the Egyptians and their animals. This was the third plague. Again, Paroh’s magicians attempted to duplicate the wonder performed by Moshe and Aharon. However, this time they failed. They were forced to acknowledge that this plague was not a manipulation of the forces with which they were familiar. They admitted that this plague was an act of G-d. Again, Paroh’s heart is strong and he remains obstinate.

However in this instance, Paroh’s reaction is difficult to understand. How could he remain obstinate even after his own magicians admitted that this plague was an act of G-d? Furthermore, the passages juxtapose the admission of the magicians with Paroh’s continued stubbornness! This seems to imply that their admission somehow encouraged Paroh’s continued obstinacy.

There are various responses to this problem. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra contends that the magicians did acknowledge that this plague was different from those that preceded it. However, he notes that they did not advise Paroh that it had been brought about by Hashem – the deity introduced by Moshe and Aharon. Instead, they described the plague and an act of G-d. Their intention – in making this distinction – was that the plague was a natural phenomenon and did not represent an act of providence. Paroh accepted the magician’s explanation and continued to refuse to release Bnai Yisrael.[4]

Nachmanides explains that in each of these instances Paroh did experience fear and anxiety. However, in each instance, he accepted the contention of his magicians that the wonder, or plague, could be explained or minimized. With the encouragement of his magicians he overcame and dismissed his fears. In other words, in each of these instances, Paroh engaged in a pseudo-intellectual analysis of the phenomenon he had witnessed and experienced. The fallacy of the magicians’ claims was evident. But Paroh chose to dismiss his fears and doubts and accepted the questionable explanations offered by the magicians.[5] Now, let us consider the plague of shechin – boils.

“And the magicians could not stand before Moshe because of the boils, for the boils were upon the magicians and upon all Egypt. But Hashem strengthened Paroh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, as Hashem spoke to Moshe.” (Shemot 9:11-12)

Nachmanides explains that the plague of shechin completely undermined the influence of Paroh’s magicians. They too experienced the misery of the plague. They could not duplicate the plague or even protect themselves from the affliction. They were embarrassed to appear before Paroh and offered no further explanations of Moshe’s power. Paroh could no longer resort to his pseudo-intellectual rationalizations. His heart could no longer draw strength from the encouragements offered by the magicians. But now Hashem strengthened Paroh’s heart. He gave Paroh the ability to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of Moshe’s power and relationship with Hashem.

Based on this analysis, it seems that “strengthening of heart” describes Paroh’s analysis of the wonders and plagues he observed and experienced. Paroh did not wish to accept Moshe’s claims that he represented Hashem and acted as His agent. He was presented, time and again, with evidence supporting Moshe’s claim. But in each instance, he dismissed the objective implications of the evidence in order to sustain his corrupt, biased world-view. Let us compare this to the reaction described by a “heavy heart.”

“When Paroh saw that there was relief, he made his heart heavy, and he did not listen to them, as Hashem had spoken.” (Shemot 8:10)

The passage describes Paroh’s response to the second plague – frogs. Aharon extended his staff over the waters of Egypt and a swarm of frogs emerged. The frogs overran the land. Paroh’s magicians were also able to bring forth a few frogs. But their unimpressive imitation of Moshe and Aharon’s plague did little to relieve Paroh and the Egyptians from the infestation. Paroh was reduced to begging Moshe to end the plague. Moshe complied and the frogs died – leaving the land covered with their carcasses. Here, there is no mention of Paroh strengthening his heart. He had been forced to submit to Moshe and beg for his assistance. No explanation offered by the magicians could relieve Paroh of his humiliation. Yet, Paroh remained obstinate. The Torah does not indicate that Paroh’s stubbornness was founded upon any rationalization. Instead, the Torah tells us that Paroh saw that the plague had ended. With the removal of the pressure that the plague had exerted upon him, he returned to his former obstinacy.

“And Hashem did according to Moshe’s word, and He removed the mixture of wild beasts from Paroh, from his servants, and from his people; not one was left. And Paroh made his heart heavy this time also, and he did not send forth the nation.” (Shemot 8:27-28)

The forth plague was an invasion of wild beasts. In this instance, Paroh’s magicians did not make an appearance. They did not offer Paroh council or attempt to minimize Moshe’s actions. With Egypt overrun with wild beasts, it is unlikely Paroh would have had much interest in or patience for the magicians’ explanations. Again, Paroh is forced to appeal to Moshe. Moshe prays to Hashem and the wild beasts retreat from the land. Paroh makes his heart heavy and refuses to release Bnai Yisrael.

As in the instance of the plague of frogs, Paroh’s stubbornness is not founded upon any rationalization or minimization of Moshe’s claims. Again, with the removal of the suffering and fear engendered by the plague, Paroh returns to his previous obstinacy.

We can now appreciate the difference between these two phrases: “strengthening of the heart” and “making the heart heavy.” Paroh’s “strong heart” describes his dismissal of any evidence that would threaten his world-view. It describes a complete retreat and embracement of a false and imagined view of reality. It is an intellectual failure. Paroh’s “heavy heart” describes a different reaction. Heavy objects are difficult to move. If an object is extremely heavy, only a massive force cannot budge it. The moment that force is eliminated, the object will come to rest. The plagues were this massive force. They were powerful enough to move Paroh. But the moment a plague ended, Paroh’s “heavy heart” came to rest. Paroh’s “heavy heart” describes his total inability to alter his engrained patterns of behavior.

Perhaps, there is a little bit of Paroh in most people. We need to be careful not to become so attached to our views and perspectives that we are dismissive of evidence that challenges our world-view. We must also recognize that we too can become fixed in a pattern of behavior that is outmoded and unrealistic. We must take care that our decisions are not merely an attempt to preserve these habitual patterns.

[1] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:13.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:22.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:22.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 8:15.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 7:19.