And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt (Shmot 7:3)


A question that many of the commentators seek to address is: How is it just or fair that Pharaoh is punished for his refusal to let the Israelites go free when it is God who hardens his heart? If Pharaoh is not free to decide to acquiesce to Moshe’s demands, why should he be punished for it? What does this say about God’s morality? What about Pharaoh’s free will? What about the power of teshuvah? Doesn’t God prefer teshuvah to punishing sinners, as it is written “I shall say to them ‘By My life,’ says the Eternal God, ‘I shall not desire the death of the wicked, but that the wicked may return from his way and live….’” (Yechezk’el 33:11)?


Sforno says that God sent the plagues upon Egypt so that the Egyptians may repent of their evil ways, and that the Israelites may know God’s power. It was necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart because otherwise, he would have let the Israelites go free, and they would never have learned faith in God. What was clear to God was that if Pharaoh were to release the Israelites from slavery, he would not have done so out of sincere repentance, but out of fear. This is why it was necessary to harden his heart. “Harden” does not mean “make him stubborn,” but to toughen him against that fear. Pharaoh needed to be in a state in which if he were to release Israel, it would be out of genuine acceptance of God’s divinity and the rightness of the decision. 


According to Ibn Ezra, it is within the power of human beings to decide whether to improve themselves or worsen themselves. Apparently, this was withheld from Pharaoh so that God may send God’s signs and wonders. Ibn Ezra does not agree with the opinion that “harden his heart” means to give Pharaoh the inner strength to withstand the plagues.


Ramban answers the question about the justice of God’s making Pharaoh “hard-hearted” so that he would bring the plagues upon himself and upon Egypt by saying that Pharaoh’s crime was so heinous that it warranted a fitting punishment. Besides, Pharaoh was given warning at least three times, and he was indeed given opportunities to make teshuvah. It was after the fifth time that Pharaoh refused to listen to his own advisors and to Moshe that God decided that as punishment, God would help Pharaoh along in the course that Pharaoh himself had chosen; to harden his own heart. 


While there are voices in the tradition that tell us that “rachamim (mercy, compassion)”is a subjective human emotion, not to be mistaken for moral imperative, and that God is the ultimate decisor of what is morally right, those teachings are at odds with an important assumption in Torah thought. These commentaries highlight the tacit assumption that justice and morality pre-existed religion. Avraham, when he argued on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Amorah before their destruction, cried out “Shall the judge of all the Earth not do justice?!” Here, too, the medieval commentators need to address the question: Is God’s treatment of Pharaoh moral? Is it just? The Torah’s lesson to us in these commentaries is not only those rabbis’ answers, but in the question that they come to address. 


Shabbat shalom!

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