from the heart of jerusalem

Pharaoh hardened his own heart


One of the greatest gifts we have in this world is the ability to make choices in our lives. Though sometimes, we might wish we didn’t have to make those choices.

The choices we make carry with them the ability to grow, to express ourselves, and most of all, to be partners with G-d in creating, every day, the new world we live in. It would perhaps be simpler if we didn’t have to make such choices, and G-d did it all for us. But then our life would lose its meaning.

All of which makes the opening of this week’s parsha, Beshalach, so challenging.

G-d tells Moshe that the people should make camp opposite the sea, because “I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart that he will pursue them [Israel], and I will harden Pharaoh and all his armies, that Egypt will know that I am G-d.” (Shemot 14:4)

Hashem will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will pursue the Jewish people, resulting in the miracle of the splitting of the sea. This has been one of the major themes of the Exodus story. All the way back at the burning bush, when Moshe is first sent to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, G-d tells him (3:19-20) that Pharaoh will not let the people go and G-d will strike at Egypt with all manner of miracles, and only then will Pharaoh let the Jewish people go.

Throughout the Exodus story, even at the last plague of the first born (11:20), G-d repeated hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go. But if Pharaoh did not actually choose to keep the Jews in bondage, why was he (along with all of Egypt) responsible for the consequences? If G-d hardened his heart, how could Hashem then punish him for his refusal by visiting the next plague upon him?

The key to this question may lie in a fascinating insight by the Ramban.

In the first five plagues, despite Hashem’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart, it never says that he does so. In fact, consistently in the first five plagues, the Torah actually describes how Pharaoh hardens his own heart (7:23, 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, and 9:7). It is only with the advent of the sixth plague, that we begin to see that G-d actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart (9:12).

The Ramban suggests that although Pharaoh can only be responsible for the choices he himself makes, a person can make choices which ultimately remove his ability to choose.

A person can actually sink to such a level of evil, as a result of the choices he has made, that he actually no longer has the ability to choose. This is how far down into the abyss of human behavior Pharaoh had sunken. He was so invested in evil, so absorbed in the path he had chosen, he was no longer on that path out of choice, he was simply on a roller coaster ride he could no longer control.

This may explain why the decisions Pharaoh was making, from our perspective, made no sense. How could he have been so blind? Clearly, every time Pharaoh refuses to let the Jews go, things only get worse. And clearly, Hashem has the ability to deliver on His promises, and Egypt is no match for the hand of G-d. Eventually, the Jews will be going home — so why not just let go?

One might suggest that Hitler found himself in exactly the same place 3,000 years later; the parallels to ancient Egypt are fascinating. The choices Hitler was making by the end of the war make no sense. In 1944, when most of the problems the German armies were facing were the holes in their supply lines, Hitler was dedicating most of his rail lines to transport the 400,000 Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz.

Imagine a drug addict. It is hard for many of us to understand what motivates a person to pick up heroin for the first time. The implications of such a decision are so clear, and can only end in disaster. Nonetheless, this decision is a choice that someone makes. And this choice may lead to another choice, to use heroin again, and again, and again. But eventually, when a person reaches a certain stage in their addiction, they are no longer able to choose.

The only way for an addict to really break his addiction is for others, perhaps in a rehab center, to step in and return to him, gradually, his ability to choose. This does not, however mean, that he is not responsible for his actions. His own actions were what led him to the state of addiction he now struggles with.

Maybe this is why this issue is so much a part of our Exodus from Egypt. We all have our own little Egypt we are trying to get out of. And part of making that exodus is awareness of the choices we make and understanding their implications.

This is a concept that the western world, and Israel in particular, would do well to consider when debating the appropriate responses to Iran’s bid for nuclear power. A close look at the rhetoric coming from Iran suggests they have long since lost the ability to see the world in a different light. They have become so committed to evil, genocide, destruction and war that one wonders if they’ve lost the ability to choose to do the right thing.

Can a society, and certainly a society’s leadership, reach a point where they have gone so far down the path of evil they can no longer even choose to do good? The Exodus story would seem to suggest they can indeed. And the ramifications for what Israel and the west’s response might then ultimately need to be are a sobering thought indeed.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

A version of this column appeared in 2012.