Insights into Exodus
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(January 24, 1998)
The Exodus is the cornerstone of our faith. Think of
the 10 Commandments: G-d's opening statement to His people at Sinai (which many count as
the first commandment) is, " I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of
Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus: 20, 2) The miracles the Jews
witnessed during the Exodus--the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the
drowning of the Egyptians--formed the basis of our acceptance of the Torah. The knowledge
of G-d's absolute mastery of the forces of nature, as well as of His unique historical
relationship with our people, was firmly implanted in our hearts through the Exodus. There
is, in fact, a mitzvah to recall the Exodus every single day, which we fulfill by saying
the third paragraph of the Shema.
Last week's reading was like a preamble to the story of the Exodus; this week's parsha,
which recounts the first 7 plagues, is the real beginning.
After commanding Moshe to tell Pharaoh to release the Jews (i.e. "Tell Ol' Pharaoh to
let My people go!"), Hashem informs him: "But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart,
and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not heed
you, and I shall put My hand upon Egypt..." (7, 3; Artscroll Translation) The Torah,
in the next two portions, goes on to repeat several times that Hashem hardened the heart
of Pharaoh and his servants.
This raises a couple of important questions, which are discussed by Rambam, Ramban and
many other of our great thinkers. If, by hardening Pharaoh's heart, G-d is
"making" him choose evil, why should he be punished with the visitation of the
plagues on himself and his people? And, more fundamentally, doesn't this topple the
central principle of our Torah that every individual has free will to choose either good
or evil? Is Hashem violating that moral freedom which is one of the very definitions of
the statement (from Bereishis) that man was made "in His Own image?"
There are several different answers given by our commentators, all of them illuminating.
The Chofetz Chayim explains that Hashem did not, in fact, take away Pharaoh's
free will. When the Torah says that He hardened Pharaoh's heart, it means, simply,
that G-d took away the divine assistance that is usually offered to a person who sincerely
wants to repent. In the fifth blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, which deals with teshuva
(repentance), we ask Hashem to "...influence us to return in perfect repentance
before You." (Artscroll Siddur, p. 103; emphasis mine.) In choosing this wording, our
Rabbis wanted to teach us that we need help from G-d Himself if we want to achieve
complete repentance. By hardening Pharaoh's heart, Hashem is, in effect, saying to
Pharaoh, "If you want to repent, you'll have to do it on your own. I withdraw
My helping hand from you." Pharaoh's free will is not taken away, then; he can still
choose to change his ways, and act righteously. But the path will not be so smooth.
Rav Ovadia Sforno, the great Italian commentator of the 16th century, goes one step
further. He explains that Hashem is actually preserving Pharaoah's free will by
hardening his heart. How so? The increasing impact of the plagues was so devastating
that if Hashem had not stepped in and hardened Pharaoh's heart, he would have been
compelled to let the Jewish people go, just to stop the suffering. Pharaoh's relenting
would, then, not be a sign of true submission; his repentance would not be genuine.
Therefore, Hashem makes him less sensitive to the pain that is being inflicted on the
Egyptians, so that he will have the free will to truly repent--if he chooses--i.e. from an
objective acknowledgment of G-d's mastery. The hardening of the heart, in Sforno's
reading, maintains the operation of Pharaoh's free will under the trying circumstances of
Rambam (Maimonidies) discusses this issue in the section of his code, Mishneh Torah, that
deals with the laws of repentance. He writes that if a person is extraordinarily wicked,
as was Pharaoh, G-d sometimes takes away his ability to repent; as a punishment, free will
is actually removed, as a punishment. Pharaoh willfully embittered the lives of the Jews
in Egypt, freely
choosing to make them suffer for an extended time. (Though it's true that Hashem had
decreed an Egyptian exile, there was absolutely no divine compulsion that it should bring
the Jewish people the misery Pharaoh inflicted.) For this sin, he deserves to have his
free will taken away, and the "gates of repentance" shut before him. He is then
punished, in this unrepentant state, for the original sin he committed before the free
will was taken away--his persecution of the Jews.
Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma, which points out that for the first 5 plagues, the
Torah does not state that Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart; rather, it just says, "And
Pharaoh's heart was hardened." He stubbornly refuses, on his own, to accept the
divine rebuke of the plagues and to submit to Hashem. From the 6th plague and on, Hashem
steps in. He knows that the suffering of the plagues might cause Pharaoh to bend (as the
Sforno said), but that it won't be a true repentance; it also will not help to shield him
from the further punishments that he deserves for his obstinacy.
Rather than punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians by destroying them immediately, however,
Hashem chooses to harden Pharaoh's heart and, thereby, achieve another essential purpose
that was mentioned at the outset: "to multiply My signs and wonders in the land of
Egypt," for the sake of convincing the Jews (as well as Egypt and the rest of the
world) of His omnipotence. Ten plagues are twice AWESOME as five!
There is one final purpose achieved by hardening Pharaoh's heart: to teach US, for all
ages, that removing free will is, indeed, a punishment that Hashem metes out to those so
deserving (Leket Bahir). One cannot help but wonder if Hitler, y'mach sh'mo, also fell
into this category. Perhaps, at some point, he also lost the ability to turn back
from his evil course.
King David, in Psalm 19, pleads with G-d to save him from his own sins: "Also from
intentional sins, restrain Your servant; let them not rule me..." (Artscroll Siddur,
p. 375, 377) One can read this as David's plea to Hashem that the "gates of
repentance" not be closed before him as a punishment for his transgressions. It's a
scary thought: to be punished by having our free will, our sacred birthright as creatures
of G-d, taken away so that we cannot repent. May Hashem help us steer very clear of such
an awful circumstance...and may He "influence us to return", now, in true
repentance before Him.
Divre Torah from Parshiyot in Genesis
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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