Reflecting on G-d’s Miracles Leads to Holiness
If we consider the ten plagues of Egypt, we note that it was Pharaoh himself who hardened his heart during the first five plagues (Exodus 7:22; 8:11,15,18; 9:7), whereas during the last five it was Hashem Who hardened his heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:1). On this subject our Sages have said, “When G-d perceived that he did not relent after the first five plagues, He decided that even if Pharaoh now wished to repent, He would harden his heart in order to exact the whole punishment from him” (Shemot Rabba 11:6).
A few clarifications are very much needed here:
1. Why did Pharaoh harden his heart so greatly and confront G-d, given that 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 despondent 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 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, despite 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, and it allowed them to liberate themselves from slavery. Nevertheless, the question still remains.
2. Why are we commanded to remember, throughout the entire year as well as for all generations, the wonders performed by Hashem in Egypt, yet we are commanded to remember what He did for our ancestors on Purim, Hanukah, etc. only on the actual dates of those holidays?
3. Why did our Sages teach, “In every generation a man is bound to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt” (Pesachim 116b)?
4. Why did Hashem have to personally execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), rather than by the intermediary of an angel (Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus ad loc.)?
The answer is that when a person sinks into impurity, he does not think about his country, his people, or 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 9:8). Even though he 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, for although they believe in G-d, they continue to perform their misdeeds because it is difficult for them to flee from evil. “I shall sin and repent,” they constantly tell themselves (Yoma 85b). 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 control and overcome their inclinations and begin taking an account (heshbon) of the world (Bava Batra 78b). Let us not forget that Abraham worshipped idols at first (Rambam, Hilchot Akum 1:3), and that it was only after reflecting a great deal on his life that he acknowledged and attained an understanding of the Creator.
Let us also not forget that G-d repeatedly warned the Egyptians before inflicting new plagues on them. He gave them entire weeks in order to reflect a little and take to the right path: He would wait one week after a plague, and for three consecutive weeks afterward He would warn 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 that Hashem mentioned to Abraham (Genesis 15:13). However what Pharaoh did not realize was that the Children of Israel had labored even at night, which doubled the amount of time they had worked. Consequently, they merited being freed at that point.
In fact we may say that for as long as Pharaoh did not acknowledge G-d, he hardened his heart and refused to let the Children of Israel leave, for he desired to enslave them. However when he acknowledged 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 occurred. 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). Thus the verse affirms: “The habitation of the Children of Israel during which they dwelled in Egypt was 430 years” (v.40). The nights therefore also counted. How did Pharaoh come to this understanding? It was by realizing that Hashem 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 20:3). Pharaoh therefore understood that just as Hashem distinguished between a drop of semen that became a firstborn and one that did not (see 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 think deeply about things in order to arrive at a knowledge of G-d. Furthermore, as long as he confines himself in impurity and seeks out all kinds of pretexts so as not to change, he will be severely punished. I have personally known people who perform many mitzvot, yet slander their neighbors. When tragedy strikes them, they ask why G-d acts in such a way. This is due to their lack of discernment, for they fail to realize that a person must rid himself of all traces of evil, whether he acknowledges Hashem or not. Otherwise one will experience the worst punishments. G-d hardens the heart of one who does not acknowledge Him, punishing him until such time as he recognizes Him. He then uproots the evil that defiles the sinner’s heart.
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 being delivered, however they respected G-d’s precepts and refused to assimilate. Why? It is because G-d helped them in order to prevent the kelipah from drawing its strength from these mitzvot; this was the miracle that Hashem performed. Without Him, we would be slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt – us, our children, and our grandchildren. Without the miracles of Egypt, the Children of Israel would have not merited other miracles. The miracles of Egypt constitute the very foundation of all others, a fact that we must recall every day (see Deuteronomy 16:4). Moreover, the redemption began at night, an allusion to the kelipah that works at night (Zohar III:113a). That very night, the Children of Israel conquered the forces of evil, and from then on Pharaoh knew that the kelipah could no longer harm them because Hashem had worked wonders for them.
We may now understand why G-d “passed alone” through the land of Egypt when He struck its firstborn. In fact the goal of the exodus from Egypt was to sanctify the Children of Israel before they received the Torah (see Sefer Emet: Bo, Beshalach). Even while mired in the 49 degrees of impurity, they observed certain mitzvot and accepted upon themselves the yoke of G-d’s kingdom. Since “if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped” (Shabbat 104a), G-d made it such that they were quickly prepared to serve Him. From that point on, they were made worthy of receiving assistance from G-d and being liberated solely by Him (Tanhuma Bo 7).
In addition, it was G-d Himself in all His glory Who appeared to the Children of Israel. He did this to strengthen their faith in Him and in the Tzaddikim, so that they would strive to properly understand and apply the difficult Torah precepts that they were about 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,” Hashem told them, adding: “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 Hashem, Who protected the mitzvot that you performed in Egypt so that, despite your schemes which could have brought you to the fiftieth gate of impurity, the kelipah could not nourish itself. It was I Who distinguished 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 demonstrate 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 yoke of Torah study, little by little it begins to purify. All this was accomplished by the exodus from Egypt, which was achieved through the merit of our Patriarch Abraham.
All this shows us that a wicked person, one who does not think about his behavior or seek out the truth (always finding excuses to justify himself), sinks even further into his perversity. It is by sound reasoning that one achieves holiness.