In Parshat Va’era we read about the first seven miraculous plagues that struck the Egyptians before the Jews were redeemed. One of the most perplexing aspects of this week’s parsha is the concept of Hashem hardening lev Pharaoh – a concept that has elicited many questions and answers regarding how this term fits into the fundamental beliefs of Judaism. By looking closer at various uses of similar terminology both in our parsha and in other texts, we might gain insight into one possible explanation.
One oft-quoted interpretation is that offered by the Rambam, who suggests that repentance was withheld from Pharaoh given his level of wickedness. In trying to further understand the words of the Rambam, Yosef Ibn Caspi (a disciple of Rambam) suggests that it was not simply that Hashem removed his ability to choose differently, but that Pharaoh’s own prior actions had made him into such a person that he could not possibly see the truth. In his years as a tyrant ruler he had become someone with such little regard for human decency as he became so caught up in his drive for personal power that he could not possibly open his heart and mind to see a Divine presence that has authority over him.
This understanding of the concept of a hardened heart is further illustrated in this parsha. Before the seventh plague, the Egyptians were warned that a hail-storm would come this time tomorrow and destroy all that remained outside in the fields (9:18). In spite of this very explicit warning, many of the Egyptians did not bring their cattle indoors. The Torah describes this group of Egyptians as follows:
Veasher lo sam libo el devar Hashem vayezov et avdav ve’et mikenh basadeh
But he who did not pay heed to his heart to the word of the Lord left his servants and his livestock in the field (9:20-21)
The Ohr Hachaim points out that these Egyptians must have had zero concern that the plague would actually happen – for if they did consider that it might come true, certainly they would have taken the necessary precautions to protect their property! It is most astonishing, then, that after the first six devastating plagues, so many still refused to accept even the possibility that there existed a God of the Jewish people who possessed great power.
The Torah is quite specific about word choice; the use of the word lev (heart) in the above verse comes to teach us an important lesson about the mindset and the mistake of the Egyptians. So often we consider people “close-minded” for not being open to others opinions or views; and yet, many times the person may cognitively and intellectually understand the opposing views, but in their hearts they cannot accept the reality. And so it was with the Egyptians that their emotions, their pride, and their desire to maintain the status quo as slave-owners, blinded them from seeing the the hand of a Higher Being that threatened to uproot their society.
Unfortunately, it was not only Pharaoh and the Egyptians whose impermeable hearts prevented them from seeing yad Hashem in their lives. We know that only 1/5 of the Jewish people actually left Egypt - how can we understand that the majority of Jewish people did not follow the lead of Moshe to escape the horrific life for a future of freedom? Like Pharaoh and so many of the Egyptians, many Jewish hearts were hardened – despite the miracles and wonders that they saw, it has been suggested that some were too caught up in their emotions of resentment towards Hashem after years of suffering that they could not recognize or trust Him as their Savior.
In the prayer that we say to welcome in the Shabbat we say the following words:
Al takshu levavchem kamriva, ke-yom masa bamidbar
Do not harden your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness
Rabbi Raskin points out (based on insights of Rav Yaakov Emden) that in this Psalm, we are reminded that we should not be as the Jews of the generation that left Egypt whose hearts were hardened, as they did not have full faith in Hashem and the redemption. Instead, we must open our hearts to be able to see yah Hashem around us.
In this parsha, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that we see that Pharaoh, who was born free, became enslaved to his self – to his ego, stubbornness, and drive for power prevented him from accepting the truth and acting in a rational manner throughout the series of plagues. Let us learn this invaluable lesson from the mistake of Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and perhaps most importantly from Jews of that generation – not to become enslaved to our views and perceptions, but to be open to expanding our hearts and minds. It is often easier to ignore certain truths - accepting the sovereignty of Hashem in this world may make us think about changes we may want to make in our lives or impact the way we make decisions – but we must not allow such feelings prevent us from letting the truth penetrate our hearts, effect our souls, and impact our lives.
Shabbat Shalom, Taly