(photo credit: Rhikal/Wikimedia Commons)
The dramatic duel between Moses and
Pharaoh in the Torah is depicted in the Ten Plagues which God inflicted on the
Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews, as they were then called, to
leave Egypt, become a free and independent nation, receive the Torah and
resettle in their homeland, Eretz Yisrael. But Pharaoh resists until the last
plague, even though he acknowledges God.
Biblical commentators have
understood the process as a growing awareness by Pharaoh and his court, the
Egyptian people and the Jewish people of a revolution in the history of mankind:
freedom and the importance of human dignity. But Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the
Jews to leave is complicated by God’s intervention: He “hardened Pharaoh’s
heart.” (Exodus 7:3) It would seem, therefore, that Pharaoh did not have true
Rashi notes that the process of increasing punishments was
necessary to demonstrate God’s power – not only to the Egyptians, but to the
Jews. He notes that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh himself was
responsible for his hardening heart. In addition, Pharaoh’s heart was
“strengthened.” (Exodus 7:13) and then became “heavy.” (Exodus 7:14) Why does
the Torah use three different words to describe what amounts to a single
description of his stubborn obstinacy? We will answer this
Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva)
insists that everyone has free will; one can choose to do good, or evil. The
ability to choose freely defines us as human beings; our choices define us as
individuals. Freedom to choose is an essential and inherent right, but it is not
absolute; there are consequences to actions.
This explains why three
different words are used to describe Pharaoh’s heart. He changes his mind,
perhaps from lack of awareness and fear of losing a valuable commodity. It’s
understandable, given his position. That is what is meant by “hardening,” and
“heavy.” He refuses to change, even though he recognizes God’s existence. But
then he becomes recalcitrant and arrogant – which is described as “his heart was
The key to understanding this psychological debilitation –
and what Torah teaches – is Pharaoh’s lack of self-criticism. The ability to
choose, to exercise free will without honest self-evaluation and introspection,
is self-destructive and destructive to others. In Pharaoh’s case, he led his
army and his nation to disaster.
Persecuting Jews, however, is not unique
There will always be Jew-hating pharaohs and those who serve
them. They can be overcome by our unity, by caring for each other, and by our
commitment to the ideals and principles that have guided the Jewish people for
Rather than despair, the story of the Exodus suggests that we
watch the “hand of God” at work, and never forget that – despite difficulties –
we are not alone. A modern miracle, the Jewish people has returned to its
homeland, established Jewish sovereignty, and are building the third Jewish
civilization and commonwealth.
We have much for which to be thankful. We
are blessed with wise and caring teachers and with courageous soldiers who risk
their lives to defend and protect us. Millions of true Zionists refuse to be
intimidated by threats from foreign enemies.
Many good, decent people
throughout the world want our Isaiah nation not only to survive, but to prevail.
We are, after all, in God’s hands.
The author is a PhD historian, writer