December 27, 2013: Pharaoh's Hardened Heart: the Exception that Proves the Rule (Va'era)


Rick (not his real name) was admitted on New Year’s Day after a night of binge partying. “I guess I wasn’t too steady on my feet when I walked into the middle of the road,” Rick tells me. “They say I flipped over the windshield of the car that hit me. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.” When I peruse the medical records, I see that Rick has landed in the hospital three times during the past seven years from injuries or overdoses. “I know I’m an addict, but sometimes the urge to use is so strong, it blocks out everything else.”

And Adonai said to Moses: “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put in your power. I, however will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21) Beginning with this verse, ten times, the Torah tells us that God intends to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Ten times, God afflicts him and his people with plagues. Can God be so cruel, so sadistic, that He hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to punish him for it? The enigma has baffled and disturbed students of the Torah for centuries. Biblical commentator, Umberto Cassuto, articulates clearly the age-old theological dilemma as follows: “if it is the Lord who hardens the heart of Pharaoh, then the latter cannot be blamed for this, and consequently it is unethical for Pharaoh to suffer retribution.” More basically, the story seems to contradict the fundamental Jewish doctrine of free will. As Maimonides puts it: “If God were to decree that a person should be either good or bad, … what room would there be for the entire Torah?” (Hilchot Teshuvah 6:4)

There is no shortage of justifications claiming that Pharaoh actually deserved all that he suffered. Many interpreters point out that before God sent any of the plagues, Pharaoh had already transgressed seriously enough to warrant them, when he ordered that all Israelite male infants be thrown into the Nile. Others cite the subtle but significant shift in language midway through the plagues. Each time God reverses the first few plagues, the text reads: “and Pharaoh hardened his heart,” but after the sixth plague, the plague of boils: “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” From this literary detail, Maimonides makes an astute, psychological observation about human nature. Although when we transgress initially, it may be voluntary, once we transgress over and over again, it becomes habitual. The behavior takes on a life of its own, and becomes nearly impossible to break.

The problem with these explanations is that they seek a rational basis for rejecting the position that the Torah plainly maintains: Pharaoh has been robbed of his ability to choose his behavior. They are reminiscent of the slew of rational conjectures that seek to explain away the plagues themselves. The Nile turned to blood, for example, because of the red tide, a fungus that in turn killed the frogs. When the frogs died, the lice came to feed upon the corpses, and so on. However, the import of all these signs and wonders lies precisely in their supernatural transcendence, and any attempt to naturalize them misses the point. The plagues are miracles. Pharaoh’s hardened heart needs to be viewed in the same vein as the plagues. That is to say, like the plagues—and all the other signs and wonders that God fashions in Egypt—Pharaoh’s hardened heart is also a subversion of the natural order. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the exception that proves the rule.

Ten times (once again ten!), the Torah reminds us that the purpose of all the signs, wonders and plagues of Egypt is knowledge of God, beginning with: “Thus says Adonai: By this you shall know that I am Adonai.” (Exodus 7:17) Awareness of the Divine is an elusive thing. The 19th century Eastern European Rabbi, Joseph Caro, writes the following about our general incapacity to perceive God’s presence in the world: “People are fools, for everything that seems to them the usual course of nature, they will pay no attention to. They have eyes, but will not see, unless God creates something totally new upon the earth. Then, they will hop and skip like a ram, on the hind legs of their reason, saying: Look! Now, sure, Adonai is God!, as they exclaimed at the Red Sea. Only then do they believe, whereas the insightful sage will say, aren’t these mighty waters that have been flowing for thousands of years a greater testament to the power of their Creator? What could the [circumstance] of the waters drying up for a few hours at the Divine command possibly add to that?” (Arthur Waskow, Torah of the Earth: Volume I, pp. 194-195)

The divine act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is no less a wonder in the moral universe than the divine act of splitting the sea in the natural world. The natural world and the moral universe lie very close to one another. Rabbi Caro chides us with his reminder that God surrounds us in the everyday wonders of nature, if only we opened our eyes to them. Well, maybe God surrounds us just as surely in everyday acts of human kindness, such as when people exercise their free will to smile, to listen compassionately, or to lend a hand, if only we opened our hearts to accept them. We sit bolt upright and cry foul when God shuts up Pharaoh’s heart, but that’s only because we take our moral freedom for granted.

The fundamental doctrine of Jewish ethics is encoded in the second half of the classic paradox formulated in Pirkei Avot: hakol tzafui ve-hareshut netunah, “everything is foreseen, but permission [to choose] is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19) We certainly have plenty of excuses for wrongdoing besides pinning our “villainy upon the spherical predominance of sun, moon, stars, and planetary influence,” as Shakespeare puts it. (King Lear, I, ii, 125-130) “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” “they were a bad influence on me,” “I needed the money,”… More sophisticated exculpatory defenses, especially in a legal context, might invoke psychological, social, or genetic predispositions. However, the entire ethical and Halachic edifice of Judaism rests upon the principle that all such determinisms are fundamentally false.

If so, then how do we reconcile the two halves of the aphorism from Pirkei Avot, “permission to choose is given (hareshut netunah)” with “everything is foreseen (hakol tzafui)?” Perhaps they refer to two different time periods—the present and the future. Perhaps the statement means that in olam hazeh, the age in which we live, God has voluntarily set limits to God’s own power, vowing not to interfere in human affairs just as God has chosen not to interfere with the “Laws of Nature,” but at the end of days, God will reassert Divine omnipotence (in both the natural and moral order). Translating the word reshut as “domain” instead of “permission,” note that hareshut netunah could just as well mean “the domain is given:”—this world is our domain to act freely, but in olam haba, the Next World, God will retract our freedom.*

Alternatively, perhaps the tension between “everything is foreseen” and “permission to choose is given” lies entirely in the present, within this world. Perhaps the paradoxical formulation operates like a Zen koan, inviting us to meditate upon our freedom of choice, teaching us not to take our moral autonomy for granted, not to throw it away, not to confuse it with random, instinctual, or coerced behavior. Translating the word tzafui as “observed” instead of “foreseen,” note that hakol tzafui could just as well mean “everything is observed.” Freedom of choice demands that we observe, watch, and remain on the lookout for opportunities to open our hearts and turn them to good. After all, a hardened heart is not always the expression of willful rebellion. Sometimes our callousness simply stems from apathy.

I told Rick that I couldn’t predict the future, but that if he continued down the path he’s on, chances are that one of these days he would wind up in the morgue, not the hospital. He nodded his head in agreement. “But it’s not inevitable,” I continued, and the two of us spent the rest of the pastoral visit strategizing on the structures he would put in place to support his recovery once he left the hospital. His heart was open and receptive—at least for the moment. Actually, that’s where free will always has to operate, for all of us—in the moment. Rick and I concluded our conversation by reciting the Serenity Prayer. I would like to conclude now with a serenity prayer of my own: “God, grant us the wisdom to appreciate Your underlying presence in the moral as well as the natural order, the courage to open our hearts to change, and the serenity to observe and celebrate the prevailing moments for exercising our God-given freedom of choice.”


* The Aleinu prayer, recited three times daily, includes the following powerful eschatological vision: “We therefore hope in You, Lord our God, that we shall soon see Your glory, to remove the abominations of the earth and all idolatry destroyed, to perfect the world under the kingdom of the Almighty, and all humanity will call upon Your name, to turn to You all the wicked of the earth.” I have intentionally tried to preserve in translation the grammatical ambiguity of the Hebrew text. Who will remove the abominations of the earth, God or human beings? Who will destroy idolatry? Who will perfect the world? Will God turn every human heart to Him (just as He once hardened Pharaoh’s heart), or will every person on Earth of her own accord be inspired to turn her heart to God? Which outcome would be more miraculous? The syntax is vague—perhaps deliberately so.