Monday Torah Tweet (Bo): We can harden our own hearts, or work toward repentence. Our actions have consequences. Which path shall we take?
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”” Exodus 10:1-2
This line opens our parasha this week. The language of G-d “hardening” Pharaoh’s “heart” (really his mind since the Ancients understood the heart to be the seat of intelligence and discernment) is difficult for us to understand. Surely, the seeming lack of free will on the part of Pharaoh is a problem. It is a problem if we believe in human free agency. It is also therefore a problem if we believe in the possibility of repentance. In other words, could Pharaoh have acted other than he did? Could he have allowed the people of Israel to leave after the first plague?
This is not a modern question. Rather, it has vexed Torah commentators through the ages. A midrash, cited by Rashi, reads the situation very closely. This Midrash (Exodus Rabbah XIII:3) notes that for the first five plagues, the verb is “veyehezak”, in other words, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Only thereafter does the verb shift to “vayehazek” indicating that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The Midrash makes the following point: “G-d warns a person once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does G-d close his heart against repentance so that vengance should be exacted from him for his sins.”
This still seems a little unfair. Even if Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues, is it fair that G-d then hardened his heart after the next four? I think that the psychological insight here is important. As we go through life and make the mistakes that people make, we are offered the opportunity to turn from those ways and return to a life with fewer mistakes. However, if we become habituated to making those kind of mistakes, eventually it becomes very difficult for us to change our mind, repent of those mistakes and return.
In Pharaoh’s case, he become habituated to refuse the demand of Moses to let the Israelites go. Once he had become so habituated to his refusal to do G-d’s will, it took a major crisis, including the loss of his son, to shake him and cause him to change his mind and do what G-d demanded. However, his evil ways had become so ingrained that even this decision was only temporary as he swiftly unleashed the fury of the Egyptian army on the fleeing Israelites.
One message we can learn from the experience of Pharaoh in this parasha is the importance of not becoming habituated to bad practices. For if we do, we may put ourselves in a situation where we require a true crisis to cause us to turn back to G-d.
So, yes repentance and return is always possible. However, our actions have consequences. That is the message our parasha teaches us this week.
CY&RS Faculty Member in the School of Professional Practice