Pharaoh's Hardness of Heart

  • Rav Michael Hattin




Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi


Pharaoh's Hardness of Heart

By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Shemot concluded with the first mission of Moshe and Aharon to Pharaoh, in which they demanded, in the name of the 'God of the Hebrews,' the release of Bnei Yisrael.  That meeting ended in abject failure, for Pharaoh responded by not only refusing their entreaties, but also by increasing the burden of the Israelite slaves.  Henceforth, he would hold them responsible for gathering their own straw with which to stiffen the consistency of the clay bricks. 


"That day, Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters and officers saying: 'Do not provide the people with straw for bricks as before.  Let them go and gather their own straw.  However, you must place upon them the same quota of bricks as before, do not reduce it!  They are indolent and therefore cry out: 'Let us go to sacrifice to our God.'  Let the work become heavier for the people so that they will be occupied with it, and will not be misled by false ideas.'" (Shemot 5:6-9).


Thus began the struggle between Pharaoh and the God of the Hebrews, in which Pharaoh's ongoing stubbornness was countered by progressively harsher and more wondrous plagues that eventually culminated in the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, a blow so grievous that Pharaoh finally capitulated.  This unfolding process effectively accounts for the majority of the parashiyot of Vaera and Bo.  It is characterized by a repeating formulaic pattern of Divine warning, Pharaonic refusal, pestilential visitation, Pharaonic acquiescence, relief from the affliction, and renewed noncompliance.  Remarkably but not surprisingly, the human figure most cited in these sections is none other than Pharaoh himself.


Pharaoh's Inexplicable Stubbornness


Why is it that Pharaoh repeatedly repudiates the dire urgings of Moshe and Aharon?  Why does he allow his empire, his people, and his absolute rule to be buffeted and broken by stinging scourges that were ostensibly avoidable, if only he would have yielded?  Of course, his early recalcitrance is comprehensible, for the god king could hardly have regarded the wizened visages of the Hebrew leaders as even remotely menacing.  Moreover, the invisible and anonymous God that they confidently invoked was completely unlike any other of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon, whose tactile forms and straightforward jurisdictional limits could be readily grasped.  Consequently, the unheard-of God of the Hebrews seemed too ethereal and remote to constitute a substantial threat to his unjust but robust regime. 


However, quite early on in the process, and assuredly by the third or fourth plague, it became apparent to Pharaoh and to his ministers that their proud proclamations of power were no match for the omnipotence and omniscience of the Absolute One, Whose will was not to be denied.  The very ministers and magicians who easily duplicated the first two plagues of blood and frogs were quite ineffective by the third plague of lice.  In fact, they themselves were stricken by the sixth plague of boils, and by the eighth plague, they were to be found in the untenable position of pleading with Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.  But all to no avail, for Pharaoh would not bow, not until darkness had obliterated his beloved son god and death had taken his own firstborn son.


The Theological Dilemma


The commentaries offer a number of striking explanations for Pharaoh's behavior, and we shall consider the profound implications of their words for us.  It is essential to bear in mind that the background to their discussions is a vexing theological enigma, namely the well-known assumption that Pharaoh's intransigence appears to have been conditioned by Divine fiat.  Thus, already on the eve of his appointment as God's spokesman, Moshe is informed that Pharaoh's heart will 'be hardened':


"God said to Moshe: 'When you return to Egypt, beware of all of the wonders that I have placed in your hand, and perform them before Pharaoh.  I WILL HARDEN HIS HEART, and he will not let the people go.  Say to Pharaoh: 'The people of Israel are My firstborn son.  I therefore command you to let My son go free to worship Me, for if you refuse, I will slay your firstborn son'"(Shemot 4:21-23).


In other words, although Moshe had yet to even present his arguments before Pharaoh for the first time, God already indicated to him that Pharaoh would not submit before the deadly onslaught of the final plague, for God would intervene to harden his resolve.  If it is God Who expressly intercedes to sway Pharaoh's autonomous decision, then how can the Deity hold him responsible for his repudiation of Moshe's demands and consequently punish him with the full intensity of His plagues?


Rambam – The Choice Is Ours


The Rambam (12th century, Egypt), echoing with some variation the words of Rashi who preceded him by almost a century, proffers an eloquent explanation in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva, Chapter 5 and 6.  He begins his discussion by stating a fundamental tenet of the Torah:


"Every person is given complete autonomy to pursue the course of righteousness to become morally upright, or to follow the way of wickedness to become evil.  This is what the text of the Torah intimates concerning this unique capacity of the human being, when it states: 'Behold the human being is like one of Us, to know the difference between good and evil' (Bereishit 3:22). 


"That is to say that the human being is completely exceptional in this respect, for only he/she is capable of distinguishing between good and evil, and of consequently exercising an autonomous moral will without hindrance or constraint...


"This is a crucial principle that constitutes the foundation of the Torah and its commandments...(for) God does not coerce human beings nor decree upon them to do good or bad, but rather they have complete choice.


"If the Deity were to decree upon the person to be righteous or evil, or were to shape his/her essential nature to of necessity follow a particular path, opinion, or deed (as the foolish astrologers maintain), how could He command us by the word of the Prophets to 'do this' or 'don't do that,' 'improve your ways and desist from performing evil?'  If it had already been determined at the moment of conception, that one's nature would inevitably be drawn towards a particular course of action that could not be averted, then where is the possibility of the Torah's fulfillment?  By what law could God then punish the evildoer or reward the righteous?  Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5:1-4).


For Rambam, the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to exercise a completely autonomous moral choice, is at the core of the human personality.  It is part and parcel of the several essential qualities that separate man from the animals, which are conditioned, in contrast, by instinctual drives that cannot be thwarted.  In the absence of free will, in a mechanistic world in which human choice is undermined by determinism or fate, liability to the dictates of a Higher Law and the lofty dream of a Higher Purpose are absurdities.  The extraordinary ideal of Teshuva (repentance or return), of the ability of a person to experience sincere remorse for past transgressions and to earnestly resolve to correct his ways and to ennoble his life, is a baseless flight of fancy if moral autonomy does not exist.


Rambam – Forfeiting One's Autonomy to Choose


However, continues the Rambam,


"It is possible that a person can commit a sin so grievous or transgressions so numerous, such that the True Judge determines that the transgressor, who committed those acts freely, henceforth forfeit the opportunity of Teshuva.  Such a person loses the privilege of repentance from their evil, in order that they should die, and perish on account of their act...Therefore the Torah states: 'I will harden Pharaoh's heart,' for he had initially transgressed of his own free will and dealt harshly with Israel who were sojourners in his land...thus, Teshuva was withheld from him, and he was punished..."


"Why then did God send Moshe telling him to 'let the people go and repent' if God had already informed him that he would not let them go?  This was in order to indicate to all that when God withholds the option of Teshuva from the transgressor, he will not be able to return, and will of necessity perish as a result of the wickedness that he had committed initially of his own free volition…Therefore, God did not decree that Pharaoh should oppress the Israelites…but rather, he himself decided to do so, and lost the opportunity of Teshuva as a result" (Book of Knowledge, Laws of Teshuva, Chapter 6:3).


In other words, having utilized his free choice to commit acts of astounding brutality and cruelty, Pharaoh is denied that most inestimable gift of autonomy, so that changing his course of action becomes impossible.  The downward trajectory along which Pharaoh willingly launches himself by enslaving and oppressing the Hebrew masses, becomes inalterable by an act of Divine intervention, so that its inevitable result is his self-destruction. 


The Moral Dimension


Although we might be tempted to assign a psychological interpretation to this principle, that repeated conditioning through choice can sometimes result in a terminal addiction, Rambam intends a different reading.  Human autonomy is man's most precious possession.  Our freedom and liberty to decide on a moral course of action or a corrupt one, is shared by no other creature.  It is therefore an expression of the unique bond that unites humanity with the Creator, the only other Being Who is similarly endowed.  By misusing that gift in order to do evil, man runs the risk of relinquishing it.  Teshuva, which is itself nothing more than an emphatic expression of the freedom of choice to change one's course of action, is not an inalienable right, but rather a distinguished privilege that can be lost.  Thus, rather than understanding the issue in psychological terms, Rambam instead casts it in a decidedly moral light.


Rambam's reading, though relevant for every person, is particularly cogent in the case of Pharaoh.  Recall that Pharaoh presents himself, with some justification, as a supreme authority with almost unlimited powers.  Across the expanse of his desert empire, his pronouncement is law; his unwillingness to submit to the God of the Hebrews is a function of his carefully cultivated self-perception of invincibility.  In a land of absolutes of sun, sand, river and adamant rock, Pharaoh is a god and nothing can escape his hold.


The Absurdity of Pharaoh's Inability to Choose


Enter the God of Israel who dares to demand that Pharaoh relinquish control over his subservient serfs in order to grant them a brief respite from their back-breaking labor:


"The God of the Hebrews has summoned us.  Let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness in order to offer sacrifice to our God Lord..." (Shemot 5:3). 


For the first time in the history of the world, a God has spoken out against the injustice of state-sponsored slavery, and has demanded the liberation of its defenseless victims from Pharaoh's pernicious grip.  Of course, Pharaoh's initial response is one of incredulity tinged with disdain, as if an incorporeal, invisible, and nameless God could dictate terms to the ancient world's most potent ruler.  His ongoing refusals to grant the slaves their freedom and his freely exercised choice to instead increase their burdens, is matched by the incremental loss of his autonomy to change his ways.  Even as the prospect of the death of his dearest offspring and the downfall of his rule stare him squarely in the eyes, Pharaoh is powerless to modify his approach, and as a result he seals his own doom.  As our Sages colorfully put it: "The wicked are incapable of repentance, even as they stand at the Gates of Hell."


In other words, the vaunted monarch who styled himself a direct descendent of the sun and conducted himself with the bearing of an absolute deity, in the end is shown to be utterly powerless.  Even the fundamental freedom of choice that is part of the elemental inheritance of every human being, no matter how ignoble their station, in the end is beyond the humbled Pharaoh's reach!


The Little Pharaoh


Of course, it would be convenient for us to confine our discussion to Pharaoh and his ilk, tyrannical dictators all, who have filled the pages of human history with so much misery and pain.  There is another Pharaoh, however, much closer to our own hearts, who is not a remote figment of antiquity or even a current ruler of a far off land.  In the works of the ethicists who stressed self-mastery and heightened moral awareness, Pharaoh emerges as an archetype for an unsavory aspect of the human psyche that is exceedingly familiar to us. 


Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th century, Italy), writing in his classic work Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just), in the context of a discussion concerning the importance of living an examined life that is not desensitized by habit and rote, states:


"One of the evil inclination's most effective weapons is to overburden the human heart with cares and labors, leaving a person no time at all to consider the direction of his life.  If a person would but contemplate his ways, he would surely begin to reconsider his priorities, and the ensuing remorse would no doubt bring about a complete abandonment of the transgression.  This is similar to the counsel of the wicked Pharaoh who said: ' Let the work become heavier for the people so that they will be occupied with it, and will not be misled by false ideas.'  His intent was not solely to frustrate any thoughts of resistance on their part, but also to prevent them any opportunity for even reflecting on their situation, by imposing upon them unceasing labor.  This is exactly the same approach taken by the evil inclination..." (from Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 2 – The Attribute of Caution).


Thus, it emerges that there is another dimension to Pharaoh, one with which we can more readily identify.  In every human heart there is a (small?) voice that counsels us to pursue a life of material excess, of moral and spiritual apathy, and of indifference.  Held in its sway, we busily fill our days with labors, activities, and pastimes, but rarely pause to question the ultimate purpose of our endeavors.  Caught up with life's burdens and worries, some of them self-imposed, we find little or no time to contemplate our enslavement.  And like Pharaoh of old, there is a part of us that cries out with overbearing self-assurance: "Who is God that I should hearken to His voice?" (Shemot 5:2).




Cast in this light, the story of the struggle against the injustice of the mighty Pharaoh takes on added meaning, for it is not only the perennial and universal tale of hapless slaves achieving deliverance and independence.  It is also the no less significant story of the self, of the ongoing conflict in the human heart to liberate the spirit from the bonds of lethargy and torpor that would otherwise overpower it.  To return to the Rambam's formulation, at the core of the narrative is the principle of autonomy, of the God-given ability of the individual to freely exercise a moral choice and to choose what system of values to adopt.


"Every person is given complete autonomy to pursue the course of righteousness to become morally upright, or to follow the way of wickedness to become evil." 


Perhaps by recognizing the great gift of freedom of choice and contemplating the tragedy of its removal, as exemplified by Pharaoh's downfall and ruin, we may come to exercise that special freedom with enhanced discretion and greater responsibility.


Shabbat Shalom


For further study: Note carefully the comments of Rashi on Shemot 7:3:


"Since Pharaoh acted wickedly and brazenly towards Me, and it is revealed to Me that there is no desire among the nations to repent with a full heart, it is preferable that his heart be hardened.  This is in order that I might multiply My wondrous acts against him, so that the Israelites will recognize My might...and revere Me...Nevertheless, during the course of the first five plagues, it nowhere states that 'God hardened Pharaoh's heart,' but rather that 'Pharaoh's heart was hard.'"


How does Rashi's interpretation compare to that of the Rambam outlined above, and how does it differ?