As we’ve discussed this week, the Torah on numerous occasions throughout the story of the Exodus mentions that God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, which appears to mean that God made Pharaoh refuse to allow Benei Yisrael to leave. This concept gives rise to the difficult question of why Pharaoh would be punished for a decision which God somehow forced him to make, and, more generally, how it is possible that God would deny a person the free will to choose to do the right thing.
An answer cited in the name of the work Imrei Yaakov suggests that the suspension of Pharaoh’s free will was warranted due to one particular aspect of his crimes against Benei Yisrael. As we read in Parashat Shemot (chapter 5), Pharaoh reacted angrily to Moshe’s initial demand that he release Benei Yisrael, and decided to significantly increase the slaves’ workload. He ordered that the slaves would no longer be supplied straw for the production of bricks, and would instead have to find their own straw while still producing the same number of bricks each day. The Torah relates that as a result of this edict, the Israelite foremen were beaten by the Egyptian taskmasters on account of the slaves’ failure to meet their daily quota of bricks. The Imrei Yaakov notes that Pharaoh in effect created a situation where Benei Yisrael were punished for failing to do something they were incapable of doing. It was impossible for the slaves to search for straw and still meet the same rate of production as they had met previously, and yet they were punished for failing to meet the quota. In retribution, God created a situation where Pharaoh was punished for failing to do something he was incapable of doing. God withheld his ability to agree to release Benei Yisrael, and then punished him for his forced disobedience – precisely as he punished Benei Yisrael for their failing to complete the impossible task he imposed on them.
This insight perhaps serves to warn against having unrealistic expectations from the people around us. Pharaoh’s heartless cruelty towards Benei Yisrael is an extreme example of a more common form of cruelty – reacting harshly to people for mistakes and failures which they could not have been reasonably expected to avoid. We expect the people in our lives to produce a certain quota of “bricks” – to conduct themselves in certain ways, to speak a certain way, and to treat us a certain way – but not always do they necessarily have the “straw” they need to meet our expectations. Some people need more time than others to develop certain character traits, skills and abilities, and we need to take their limitations into account in making our expectations. Pharaoh’s punishment for his imposing unrealistic demands upon his subjects should teach us to ensure never to demand more from people than can be reasonably and realistically expected, to take people’s limited abilities into consideration, and to never criticize people for failing to do that which lies beyond their limits.