Last week, we began to consider the striking progression introduced by the narratives of Parashat Shemot. After announcing the death of Yosef and "all of that generation" without any overt tones of inauspicious gloom, the text abruptly refocused upon the unfolding oppression of the captive Israelite population that was initiated by the new Pharaoh and his ambitious successors. National service soon became forced labor, forced labor quickly yielded to state-sponsored tyranny, and by the conclusion of the parasha's first section, Hebrew male children were being brutally cast into the Nile to agonizingly perish. But that ignoble beginning, almost unbelievable were it not for the events of our own century to confirm their veracity, was then followed by a series of more hopeful narratives. These were the "miraculous" account of baby Moshe's preservation through the efforts of Pharaoh's own daughter, the engaging description of young and idealistic Moshe's coming of age and his emerging concern with issues of social justice, the tense tale of his banishment to the wilderness and consequent appointment upon Chorev's fiery summit as Israel's liberator, and the passage of his triumphant return, bearing a shepherd staff and tidings of redemption, to his expectant brethren in Egypt.
The stirring narratives dramatically gathered additional momentum as Moshe and his elder brother Aharon made their way through the imposing avenue of the sphinxes and then slowly but deliberately ascended the grand steps of Pharaoh's palace of limestone, for the two had been appointed by God and invested by their buoyant people with a mandate to demand the immediate and unconditional release of the Hebrew slaves. But how suddenly and unexpectedly their hopeful mission unraveled at that same brusque encounter, for Pharaoh not only refused to acknowledge their Divine dispatcher but also forcefully and immediately responded with even harsher measures: henceforth, the Hebrews would be required to furnish their own straw to fashion the bricks, while the back-breaking tally would not be diminished! Stunned, Moshe and Aharon awkwardly left the presence of the mighty monarch, only to later be unceremoniously confronted by their seething and dismayed constituents. Shaken to the core by that latter encounter, Moshe returned to God at the conclusion of last week's reading and poured out his litany of doubt and despair. But God would have none of it: "now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh", He thundered, "for with a strong hand he will send them forth, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his country!"
Why had last week's Parasha fostered such great expectations only to dash them at the final and pivotal moment? Why had the narratives of Parashat Shemot been intentionally conveyed to the reader with so much budding promise only to tragically and completely disappoint at the end? Why had the people of Israel been cruelly subjected to not only the physical sting of the taskmaster's whips but also to the even more painful emotional hurt of seeming Divine abandonment and indifference to their plight, made immeasurably more unbearable for having come in the aftermath of short-lived euphoria? To state the matter succinctly, what was God thinking in initiating a singularly hopeful process that was then misunderstood by all of the human protagonists (except for Pharaoh!) as fated to inexorably unfold without hindrance or delay?
THE BEGINNING OF OUR PARASHA
As our Parasha opens, God forcefully responds to Moshe's desperate charges, reminding the future lawgiver that He had pledged to the patriarchs to redeem their children and restore them to Canaan, that He now heard their frantic cries for relief, and that He stood to presently fulfill His promise (6:2-8). The short opening section concludes with a renewed statement of mission, as Moshe is again sent to the Hebrews to communicate the message. But this time, in contrast to Moshe and Aharon's first meeting when "the nation trusted" (4:31), the people are now wholly unreceptive to his words, for they suffer from "shortness of breath and difficult labor" (6:9). Finally, though again enjoined by God to speak to Pharaoh and secure the release of the Israelites, Moshe is this time exceedingly reluctant, his characteristic uncertainty exacerbated by his humiliating initial failure.
A short genealogical list, tracing the lineage of Moshe and Aharon and introducing us to some names that will prove to be important in later narratives, is once more concluded with the by-now familiar refrain of Divine charge and Mosaic refusal (6:14-30), but now the text breaks new ground:
God said to Moshe: behold I have appointed you as a lord over Pharaoh while Aharon your brother will serve as your spokesman. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aharon your brother will address Pharaoh so that he will send forth the people of Israel from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart and multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. For Pharaoh will not listen to you, so then I will strike Egypt, and I will take out My hosts and My nation the people of Israel from the land of Egypt with great and punishing plagues. Egypt shall then know that I am God when I stretch out My hand upon it, and then take out the people of Israel from their midst…(7:1-5).
THE DILEMMA OF PHARAOH'S HARDNESS OF HEART – TWO APPROACHES
In this passage, God again assigns Moshe to his task while providing him with Aharon to assist. And while He had intimated on a number of earlier occasions that Pharaonic compliance was not to be expected (3:18-20; 4:21-23), here God indicates explicitly that He will harden his heart and then "multiply His signs and wonders in the land of Egypt". The troubling phrase of "hardening Pharaoh's heart" raises a number of difficulties, the chief among them concisely stated by Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain): "one could ask: if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, then what is his transgression or his sin?" (commentary to 7:3). In other words, if God here announces to Moshe from the outset that He will harden Pharaoh's heart, then how can the tyrant be simultaneously held accountable for an intransigence not of his own making? The question of course, hinges upon understanding the critical phrase of "hardness of heart" to mean a Divinely orchestrated suspension of Pharaoh's ability to exercise his free will, submit to Him and to let Israel go, and so it was understood by many of the medieval commentaries.
In years past, we have investigated the response of the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) to the problem (see his Laws of Repentance 6:3), whose approach is, in some respects, already intimated by both Rashi (11th century, France) and Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain). In brief, Rambam acknowledges that God did in fact deny Pharaoh the freedom to choose, but he regards the unusual intervention as representing a particularly harsh form of punishment that the Deity reserves for only the most recalcitrant of transgressors who have consistently shown that they refuse to choose the good. From the time that Sefer Shemot had first introduced us to tyrannical Pharaoh and his successors, the god king had consistently chosen, freely and of his own volition, to oppress, brutalize, dehumanize and finally extirpate the hapless Hebrew slaves. He had embarked upon a vicious course that could have nevertheless been altered for the good, if only the mercurial monarch had so desired. But in this respect, Pharaoh was immutable, for he persisted in his evil and resisted the call of his moral conscience, even after Moshe and Aharon had first addressed him with their softly worded requests for relief. And so, posits the Rambam, after many opportunities had been offered and rejected, after five plagues had already unfolded and Pharaoh's heart remained adamant as stone, God intervened to seize his future ability to choose, thus condemning him because of his earlier deeds to inevitable self-destruction.
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE SEFORNO
How different is the approach of Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (15th century, Italy) who categorically rejects any Divine complicity in taking away a human being's moral will:
Surely God desires that the wicked return to Him rather than perishing, as the verse states: "As I live, says God, I do not desire the death of the wicked but only that he should turn away from his evil and live" (Yechezkel 33:11). Here, God tells Moshe that He will multiply His signs and wonders in order to cause the Egyptians to repent, for He will proclaim to them His greatness and compassion by these signs and wonders…Additionally, the purpose was also for Israel to observe and to revere…There is no doubt that had his heart not been fortified, then Pharaoh would have let Israel go. But this would not have been because of repentance or submission to the Almighty, nor an expression of regret for rebellious behavior, having finally recognized God's greatness and goodness, but rather because of his inability to suffer the plagues any longer…and this would not have constituted teshuva at all. Had Pharaoh desired to submit to the Almighty and to return to Him in sincere repentance, nothing at all would have prevented him from doing so! Therefore God says that "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" meaning that He will grant him the fortitude to bear the plagues so that he will not have to send forth Israel because of his fear of them…(commentary to 7:3).
Here, the Seforno posits a completely novel interpretation (though in outline it was already stated two centuries earlier by Ramban and Ibn Ezra, the latter rejecting it!). The hardness of heart of which our passage speaks does not mean, as Rambam understood it, a taking away of Pharaoh's freedom of choice. No doubt the Rambam had understood the metaphor of a "hard heart" to mean a heart incapable of being swayed, a heart insensitive and unfeeling, a heart that would not entertain thoughts of self-transformation or development. Such a heart, once the die had been cast by a particular course of action, would stay the course until the bitter end. For the Rambam, hardness of heart was therefore synonymous with stubbornness, obduracy and immovable resolve to not be swayed. A hard heart would therefore not choose goodness, and God had sealed Pharaoh's fate by perpetuating the very hardness of heart that the god king had himself carefully nurtured by his ruinous choices all along.
RESTORING THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE
But for Seforno, the portal of sincere teshuva is never closed, even in the face of a tyrant as vile as the Pharaoh. When God indicates to Moshe that He will harden Pharaoh's heart, He means to say that He will give the Pharaoh the fortitude and strength of spirit to bear the plagues. God will "strengthen" his heart and fill it with brave resolve. This will, in turn allow the monarch the opportunity to effect real and sincere repentance, rather than being coerced by the otherwise unbearable conditions created by the onslaught of the plagues to let Israel go. In other words, while Rambam understood that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart implied the TAKING AWAY of his ability to freely choose his moral course, for the Seforno the hardening of the heart constitutes THE RESTORATION of that very freedom by granting him the strength to withstand the plagues and thus to choose his own course of action! After all, for Pharaoh to let Israel go while a proverbial gun is pointed to his head is hardly teshuva at all. But now fortified by God's saving strength, Pharaoh will remain unbowed by the plagues until the very end, thus affording him the opportunity to make, at any point during the painful process, a free and conscious decision to reject his brutal past, to mend his evil ways, and to recognize the God of Israel as the Champion of Justice and Compassion.
This brilliant approach at once relieves us of this otherwise knotty theological dilemma while also going a long way to explain the otherwise inexplicable disappointments introduced by the conclusion of last week's Parasha. Seforno understands that if teshuva is the goal, then no one can remain immune to its call: "Here, God tells Moshe that He will multiply His signs and wonders in order to cause the Egyptians to repent, for He will proclaim to them His greatness and compassion by these signs and wonders…Additionally, the purpose was also for Israel to observe and to revere…" The plagues rained down upon Egypt not to punish and to destroy but rather to impress and to inspire. By coming to recognize God's absolute control over the forces of nature and the affairs of men, the Egyptians might one day come to appreciate the evil inherent in their system of government, a form of rule that granted the honor due to a god to a fallible human and then empowered that man to enslave another people in accordance with his self-aggrandizing whims. How much human suffering has been introduced to the world by men and women convinced of their own divinity and consumed by their own self-serving visions!
As for Israel, they also stood to learn much. Having been held in cruel sway for centuries, they could scarcely imagine a life of freedom and faith, a life of meaning and higher purpose, a life of destiny and mission. How could they take on their exalted role to be God's holy nation and kingdom of priests while the coarse and heavy clay of the brick pits still clung to their hands? How could they possibly appreciate the great gift of liberation if they had not yet even began to internalize its awesome responsibilities?
And so the enslavement dragged on, momentarily becoming even worse and more unbearable. Had Pharaoh been crushed and vanquished in an instant, had Israel gone forth in a single stroke from dark slavery to blinding freedom, then surely God's might would have been undeniable, but His gentle call to teshuva and transformation would have been utterly lost in the tumult. And while the plagues undoubtedly and unhappily prolonged the suffering, they paradoxically also provided the key to that suffering's redemption, for in their aftermath, Israel went forth finally ready to embrace their freedom and to be ennobled by it.