By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
The story of the Ten Plagues is well-known enough for us to recognize the phrase “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
If indeed God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the enslaved Israelites go free, was it not God who was pulling all the strings? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh had no free choice and could not be held responsible for what happened.
Is this what the Torah teaches us when it speaks of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Does this mean that none of us really can choose what we do? If so, whether we act lovingly or hatefully, whether we are caring or selfish, whether we are sensitive to the needs of others or indifferent, are not our choices because God is pulling the strings?
Our tradition has always maintained that we have free will. How do we reconcile this view with God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?
The Ten Plagues can be divided into two parts, the first five and the second five.
In the first five plagues, God had nothing to do with hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh did it to himself.
Here are the five references to Pharaoh’s heart after the first five plagues: 1. “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened”; 2. “he became stubborn”; 3. “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened”; 4. “but Pharaoh became stubborn this time also”; 5. “yet Pharaoh remained stubborn.”
God was not pulling the strings here. Pharaoh was doing it himself.
Only after Pharaoh had himself hardened his heart does the Torah state that God hardened his heart, starting with the sixth plague. “But the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” and so it goes for plagues seven, eight and nine and the aftermath of plague 10.
Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha, a Talmudic rabbi, was troubled by the verses where it states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for this meant to him that Pharaoh had no responsibility for what he did. He asked his brother-in-law Resh Lakish, who was his close friend and study companion, what this meant.
Resh Lakish responded that God had given Pharaoh several opportunities to change his mind and allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. The first five plagues were warnings. God hoped that Pharaoh would free the Israelites but Pharaoh stiffened his own heart and refused to pay any attention. God told him, so to speak, “I will now add more trouble to what you have made for yourself.”
This is what the Torah means when it says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh brought on the condition by his own stubbornness.
Maimonides stated that as Pharaoh made his choices, one after the other, it became more difficult for him to reverse them. One bad choice led to the next and then to the next until his range of choices narrowed and he could no longer turn back.
The modern psychologist Erich Fromm expanded upon the view of Maimonides.
Fromm wrote that the Torah’s description presents “one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical and spiritual destruction.”
So with the first five plagues Pharaoh made the choice of hardening his own heart. He continued the enslavement of the Israelites until the point of no return. Only after he had backed himself into a corner does the Torah tell us that God hardened his heart. Pharaoh fell victim to his own decisions.
There is a Talmudic saying that “one sin, one bad choice, is like a spider’s thread.” It is easy to break one thread. But “many sins, many bad choices, are like a rope.” Bad choices repeated become so strong that the rope they make is hard to cut.
But the same can be said of a good deed. One good deed is like a spider’s thread and many good deeds are like a rope.
The Talmud teaches that “in the path that a person wants to go, that is the path he is led to.”
God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart does not mean that we do not have free will. God helps us along the path we choose to go.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow, who teaches in a number of venues, is awaiting the publication of his book Guardians of the City: Stories for Shaping Moral Character. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.