Reflecting on G-d’s Miracles Leads to Holiness
If we consider the ten plagues of Egypt, we note that during the first five it was Pharaoh himself who hardened his heart (Exodus 7:22; 8:11,15,18; 9:7), while for the last five it was the Eternal Who hardened his heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:1). Concerning this, our Sages have said that even if Pharaoh had wanted to repent, the Eternal hardened his heart to punish him (Shemot Rabba 11:7).
A few clarifications are very much needed here.
1. Why did Pharaoh harden his heart so much and stand up to G-d if he realized that everything was caused by the “finger of G-d” (Exodus 8:15)? Why would he expose himself, his people, and his country to such great danger? Was he ready to let his country be destroyed for the poor Jews that worked for him for free? We could say that Pharaoh knew that the Children of Israel found themselves deeply mired in the 49 degrees of impurity (Zohar Chadash Yitro 39a), and that consequently all the Divine precepts that they performed joined with the forces of evil that Pharaoh led, and from which he drew all his strength. However, as we have seen several times before, in spite of the fact that they worshipped idols in Egypt (Shemot Rabba 16:2), the Children of Israel did not change their names, their language, or their customs, and they guarded themselves against adultery (Vayikra Rabba 32:5). This prevented them from sinking into the Kelipah (lit. “husk” or “shell”) and allowed them to liberate themselves from slavery. The question, however, still remains.
2. Why are we called to remember, throughout the entire year as well as for all the generations, the wonders performed by the Eternal in Egypt, whereas we are called to remember that which He did for our ancestors on Purim, Hanukah, etc. only on the date of those actual holidays?
3. Why did our Sages teach us that “in every generation each person should consider himself as having personally left Egypt” (Pesachim 116b)?
4. Why did the Eternal have to personally execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), and not by the intermediary of an angel (Yalkut Exodus ad loc.)?
It is because when a man sinks into impurity, he has consideration for neither his country, nor his people, nor himself. Pharaoh lived in impurity, and during his entire life he veered from it neither to the left nor to the right, he who considered himself as a god (Shemot Rabba 9:7). And even though he had proclaimed, “The L-RD is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones” (Exodus 9:27), it was difficult for him to escape from impurity. This is what we see with sinners – that although they believe in G-d, they continue to perform their misdeeds, for it is difficult for them to flee from evil. “I will sin and then return to G-d,” they constantly tell themselves (Yoma 88b). In fact, if Pharaoh and sinners in general were to reflect a little, they would be able to repent and take to the right path, for this is the only way to perform Teshuvah. It is written, “Regarding this the poets would say, ‘Come to Heshbon’ ” (Numbers 21:27), which the Talmud explains as referring to those who govern and overcome their inclinations and begin taking an account (heshbon) of the situation in the world. Let us not forget that at the beginning, Abraham worshipped idols (Rambam, Hilchot Akum 1:3). It was following numerous reflections on his life that he realized and attained a knowledge of the Creator.
Let us not forget that G-d warned the Egyptians over and over again before inflicting new plagues on them. He gave them entire weeks in order to reflect a little and take to the right path (He waited one week after a plague, and for three consecutive weeks afterwards He warned them – Shemot Rabba 9:12). If Pharaoh had thought things through, be it ever so little, he would have understood why he was being punished. It is also conceivable that he believed that the Children of Israel had worked only 200 years in Egypt, this being only half the time mentioned to Abraham by the Eternal (Genesis 15:13). Yet what he did not understand was that the Children of Israel had even labored at night, which doubled the amount of time that they worked. Consequently, they merited being freed now.
In fact, we can say that as long as Pharaoh did not recognize G-d, he hardened his heart and refused to let the Children of Israel leave because he wanted to enslave them. Yet when he recognized G-d and admitted that he and his people were wicked, it was G-d that hardened his heart by allowing him to think that they had served only half of the allotted time of their slavery. Pharaoh finally understood that the 400 years of servitude had in fact expired when the plague of the firstborn struck them. He then went to get Moses and Aaron during the night (Yalkut Shimoni Bo 208) and said to them, “Rise up, go out from among my people” (Exodus 12:31). It was then that the verse affirmed that “the habitation of the Children of Israel during which they dwelled in Egypt was 430 years” (v.40). The nights therefore also counted. And how did Pharaoh come to this realization? It was by seeing that the Eternal had saved him from the last plague even though he himself was a firstborn. The Midrash states that he had, moreover, asked Moses and Aaron to pray for him (Shemot Rabba 20:2). Pharaoh therefore understood that just as the Eternal distinguished between a drop of semen that becomes a firstborn and one that does not (Bava Metzia 61b), He also knew how to accurately foresee the liberation date of the Children of Israel from Egypt. Up to that point, Pharaoh had refused to reflect upon his actions and had experienced terrible suffering.
In conclusion, a man should learn to contemplate in order to arrive at a knowledge of G-d, and for as long as he confines himself in impurity and looks for all sorts of pretexts not to change, he will be severely punished. We have personally known people who perform many mitzvot yet slander their neighbor. And when tragedy strikes them, they ask why G-d acts in such a way. This is due to their lack of discernment. They do not know that one should rid oneself of all traces of evil, and this whether one acknowledges the Eternal or not. Otherwise, one suffers the worst punishments. G-d hardens the heart of the one that does not acknowledge Him, and punishes him until such time as he recognizes Him. He then uproots the evil that defiles the heart of the sinner.
Consequently, every day we should recall the miracles that the Holy One, blessed be He, performed for our ancestors in Egypt. Perhaps they did not merit redemption, but they respected the Divine precepts and refused to assimilate. Why? Because G-d helped them in order to prevent the Kelipah from drawing its strength from these mitzvot. Such was the miracle that the Eternal performed. Without Him, we would be slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt – we, our children, and our grandchildren. And without the miracles of Egypt, the Children of Israel would have not merited other miracles (since the miracles of Egypt constituted the very foundation of all others), a fact that we should recall every day (Deuteronomy 16:4). Moreover, the redemption began at night, an allusion to the Kelipah that operates at night (Zohar III:113a). That very night, the Children of Israel conquered even the forces of evil. From then on, Pharaoh knew that the Kelipah could no longer do anything against them, for the Eternal had accomplished wonders in their favor.
We can now understand why G-d “passed alone” through the land of Egypt when He inflicted the blows to the firstborn thereof. In fact, the departure from Egypt essentially aimed at sanctifying the Children of Israel before they received the Torah (see Sefer Emet: Bo, Beshalach). Even while sunk in the 49 degrees of impurity, they had observed certain mitzvot, and they had accepted the yolk of Divine kingship upon themselves. And just as “G-d helps the one who seeks to purify himself” (Shabbat 104a; Yoma 38b), He made it such that they were quickly made ready to serve Him. In this way they were henceforth worthy of direct Divine assistance and of being liberated exclusively by Him (Tanhuma Bo 7).
Besides this, it was G-d Himself in all His glory that appeared to the Children of Israel. He did this in order to strengthen their faith in the Eternal and in the righteous, so that they would push themselves to properly understand and apply the difficult precepts of the Torah that they prepared themselves to receive. In seeing His omnipotence, they would never doubt His Torah.
This is why the Children of Israel immediately proclaimed, “We will do and we will understand” (Exodus 24:7). “Well said,” the Eternal told them, Who added, “I am the L-RD your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). In other words, “I am the only One Who can change the laws of nature, and of Me it is said, ‘He raises the needy from the dust; from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute, to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of His people’ [Psalms 113:7]. I am the Eternal, Who watched over the mitzvot that you performed in Egypt so that – despite your schemes that could have led you to the fiftieth gate of impurity – the Kelipah could not nourish itself off of them. It was I Who distinguished between your homes from those of the Egyptians [Exodus 12:27]. I made you leave Egypt by night, when the Kelipah reigns [Bava Kama 60b], to show you that you can only eliminate it by means of the Torah, for the Torah purifies, and impurity cannot attach itself to it” (Berachot 22a). As soon as one accepts the yolk of Torah study, little by little it begins to purify. All this was accomplished thanks to the departure from Egypt, which was achieved by the merit of our Father Abraham.
All this shows us that the wicked person, one who does not think about his behavior and does not look for the truth (always finding excuses to justify himself), sinks even further into his perversity. It is by sound reasoning that one achieves holiness.