The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Bo: Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And God said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them.’” [Exodus 10:1]

Why does God declare that He has “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that the despot will not change his mind and free the Israelites? Doesn’t this collide head-on with our notion of free will? Is the Torah telling us that God interrupts the ordinary course of human events to introduce His will into the hearts of people, sometimes even preventing them from making the right decision? What about the idea that absolutely nothing must stand in the way of repentance, that no one, not even a righteous person, can stand where a penitent stands?

Rabbi Shlomo Goren gives a novel explanation which was apparently inspired by the miraculous events he experienced with the rise of the State of Israel. There are times, he maintains, when God must introduce His will into the hearts of people, but this is limited to monarchs, emperors, and Pharaohs. Rabbi Goren cites a verse from Proverbs:

“Like water courses is the king’s heart in the hand of the Lord: He directs it wherever He wishes.” [Proverbs 21:1]

Rabbi Goren suggests that this verse comes to teach that in regard to freedom of choice, we have to distinguish between an individual and the leader of a nation.

Individuals always have free choice. However, since God has a master plan with Israel as the catalyst, the Almighty may sometimes be moved to control the choices of leaders of key nations during critical and fateful historical periods. Such a situation occurred at the very dawn of history with the confrontation between Pharaoh and the Hebrew slaves, and the Almighty had to step in.

Another way of looking at the issue is provided by the Midrash. True, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, as He declared He would, but we must note that the divine intervention only emerges with the sixth plague. Examining the first five plagues, we find that Pharaoh himself is the one who exercises obstinacy. This formulation is repeated again and again. “Pharaoh became obstinate” (the first plague [Ex. 7:22]); “He [Pharaoh] hardened his heart” (the second plague [Ex. 8:11]); “Pharaoh remained obstinate” (the third plague [Ex. 8:15]); “Pharaoh made himself obstinate” (the fourth plague [Ex. 8:28]); and “Pharaoh remained obstinate” (the fifth plague [Ex. 9:8]). Only when we reach the sixth plague do we arrive at a new formulation: “Now it was God who made Pharaoh obstinate” [Ex. 9:12]. The contrast is so sharp and the division so perfect – five on one side and five on the other – that it is clear that the Torah wants to tell us something.

The obstinacy on the part of Pharaoh provides the Midrash with a means for solving the tension between the notion of free will and God’s initial declaration regarding “hardening his heart.” In the Midrash Raba we read:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, gives someone a chance to repent, and not only one opportunity but several chances: once, twice, three times. But then, if the person still has not repented, God locks the person’s heart altogether, cutting off the possibility of repentance in the future.” [Shemot Raba 13:3]

The Midrash goes on to explain that Pharaoh had already been given five opportunities to repent, five opportunities to hear the voice of God demanding that His people shall be released from slavery – each of the plagues a direct “SMS” from God – and still refused. God is now effectively saying to Pharaoh: “You stiffened your neck, you hardened your heart, now I am going to add stubbornness to your own inner stubbornness.”

A similar idea is expressed in Maimonides’ “Laws of Repentance.” The great twelfth-century sage and philosopher attacks our problem frontally, dedicating parts of chapter 5 to the question of free will and then coming to the apparent contradiction between the general idea of free will and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God. Maimonides writes:

“Since Pharaoh sinned on his own impulse and mistreated the Israelites who sojourned in his land…justice required that repentance should be withheld from him until retribution had been visited upon him… When the Almighty withholds repentance from the sinner, he cannot return, but will die in his wickedness – wickedness which he had originally committed of his own will.” [Laws of Repentance 5:3]

I would like to take this basic idea of both Maimonides and the Midrash as to how God sometimes cuts off repentance as a punishment for a certain class of sinner, and attempt to understand it in human psychological terms. As both of these classical sources point out, external influence began only after Pharaoh’s own refusal the first five times despite the first five plagues. The result of such obstinacy is that Pharaoh himself became frozen, locked into a conception of how to behave; once that happens, it becomes exceedingly difficult for anyone to change their mind.

We must also remember that Pharaoh was not alone. He was surrounded by advisers, ministers and a corps of publicists. After a clear policy of continued enslavement despite the suffering endured by the Egyptian populace as a result of the first five plagues, how could Pharaoh suddenly change his policy and still save face? Had he been wrong the other times, had his citizenry suffered needlessly? How could a despot who called himself a god admit that his earlier policy had been a mis- taken one? It is almost as if Pharaoh no longer had the real possibility of change; his earlier decisions locked him in.

I would like to suggest a third approach, based on a discussion of repentance near the end of Yoma 86b. The sages alert us to a seeming contradiction in the words of Resh Lakish regarding repentance. The first quote attributed to the master is:

“Great is repentance because it results in prior premeditated sins being accounted as errors [shgagot].”

Then the Talmud points out that Resh Lakish also said:

“Great is repentance because it results in prior premeditated sins being accounted as merits [zekhuyot].”

The apparent contradiction is resolved by the Talmud by pointing out that the first citation – former sins accounted as errors – is the result of repentance based on fear, the latter citation – penitents’ former sins accounted as merits – is the result of repentance from love.

It seems to me that had Pharaoh come to the conclusion that it was wrong to enslave the Hebrews based on his own new-found convictions about the true God of the universe who guarantees freedom to all, his repentance would have emanated “from love,” and would have been accepted. Since, ironically enough, it would have been his former sinful acts and obstinacy which had led him to such a conclusion, even his prior transgressions could now be seen as merits, according to Resh Lakish. After all, had it not been for them, he would never have switched positions and arrived at his new awareness and religio-ethical consciousness.

This is clearly not the position in which we find Pharaoh. Were he to release the Jews after the fifth plague, it would have nothing to do with a transformed and ennobled moral sensitivity and everything to do with his having been bludgeoned over the head by the power of the plagues. Such repentance out of fear is hardly true repentance, and cannot be accepted by God to atone for previous sins. Since Pharaoh is not truly repenting in any shape or form, God “hardens his heart” to the suffering of the plagues and allows him to continue to do what he really believes in doing: enslaving the Hebrews, who must wait until the Almighty deems it the proper time for redemption.

Shabbat Shalom


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