Hardening The Heart

There are many questions that arise concerning the Zohar’s remark on the verse, “The L-RD said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart’ ” (Exodus 10:1). The Zohar explains: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Let us go, you and I, to Pharaoh.’ ”

1. Why was it only at that point that G-d offered to accompany Moses on his mission? Was G-d not with him during his previous missions?

2. Concerning the phrase, “so that shiti [I can put] these signs of Mine in his midst” (Exodus 10:1), the Baal HaTurim explains that shiti alludes to shteh (“two [plagues]”): The plague of locusts and the plague of darkness. However there were three plagues still to occur at that point in time, for the plague of the firstborn had not yet happened (Pesikta Zutah, Bo).

3. Why does the next verse (“so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son that I made a mockery of Egypt” – v.2) only deal with these two plagues, instead of those that preceded them? Were the previous plagues less worthy of mention?

4. Pharaoh’s servants said to their master, “How long will this be a snare for us? …Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (v.7). Moses and Aaron were then called back to Pharaoh, who said to them, “Go and serve the L-RD your G-d; which ones are going?” (v.8), and then he “drove them out from [his] presence” (v.11). Now we know that Pharaoh’s servants agreed that the Children of Israel should be freed, however Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to do so. The verse specifies, on the other hand, that it was Hashem Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart and those of his servants. Now in reality we see that his servants were too fearful to allow their hearts to harden.

5. We now come to the primary question: Why in fact did Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and prevent him from exercising his free will? We may answer by saying that deep down, Pharaoh was not really prepared to free the Children of Israel. Thus if he were to have set them free, he would have done so grudgingly, due to the plagues that were beating down on him. Hashem then hardened his heart. In such a case, we cannot say that G-d’s Name was sanctified among the Egyptians, for they said: “Egypt is lost.” In other words, they only cared about their own country’s interests, and deep down they remained sinful (see Ohr HaChaim, ad loc.).

Whatever the case may be, even after all the miracles they witnessed at the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians did not abandon their idolatry. Therefore why did Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and incite him to pursue the Children of Israel, as it is written: “I shall strengthen the heart of Pharaoh and he shall pursue them, and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army” (Exodus 14:4)? Was it the Egyptians’ possessions that G-d wanted to give to the Children of Israel? If that were so, Hashem could have suggested to Pharaoh that he give it to them, without having to harden his heart.

Did G-d want to glorify His Name among the Egyptians (Rashi on Exodus 14:4)? He had already been glorified during the plague of the firstborn of Egypt (Mechilta, Exodus 1). In fact the Children of Israel had already received gifts, as it is written: “Take even your sheep and even your cattle” (Exodus 12:32), and Pharaoh himself contributed as they had asked him: “They requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels, and garments. The L-RD gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they granted their request” (vv.35-36). Thus the question still remains: Why did Hashem need to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

The answer is that the last plagues were increasingly severe and constituted a danger to the Children of Israel. Although G-d had enriched them, they still did not acknowledge Him; they even expressed their desire to remain in Egypt. Furthermore, G-d punished the wicked during the plague of darkness, for only a fifth of the Children of Israel departed from Egypt; the remainder perished (Tanhuma, Beshalach 1). In addition to being imperiled by the Egyptians, Moses was also in danger from the wicked Hebrews. Completely lost and realizing that they were condemned, the latter could have killed Moses. Thus Pharaoh was ready to kill Moses when he said, “Go from me! Beware – do not see my face any more, for on the day you see my face you shall die” (Exodus 10:28). In addition, G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart even more and increased his hatred of the Hebrews, even though the Egyptians recognized G-d’s greatness.

This is why G-d had to tell Moses, “Let us go, you and I, to Pharaoh, for the next two plagues [locusts and the firstborn] constitute a danger for you. The Egyptians know that their country is lost and you alone are in danger, since they have nothing to lose. I have also hardened their hearts. Consequently, you are in need of divine assistance. The Children of Israel will be aware of this. I will advise them to go to the Egyptians’ homes during the days of darkness to see all the riches they are hiding.” This is what they did, since “for all the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings” (v.23), just as our Sages said (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 186). Everyone would then know that it was in this way that Hashem punished the Children of Israel for their unacceptable behavior, as well as the Egyptians. It is written: “Come to Paroh [Pharaoh]” – the word Paroh stems from Piraon (“payment”), for G-d made the Children of Israel and the Egyptians pay – “so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst” – these two plagues, that of the locusts and the firstborn, which bore down upon the Egyptians. G-d did not mention the plague of darkness because the Children of Israel were also in danger of it. Hence G-d put these two signs only among the Egyptians, not among the Hebrews.

Hashem acted in this way in order to make the Children of Israel understand that “if they do not take to the divine path, I will punish them.” Thus during the plague of darkness they buried their many dead, unbeknownst to the Egyptians. What’s more, even after this plague the Egyptians did not realize that four-fifths of the Children of Israel had perished. Another miracle!

We may now understand why G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and prevented him from exercising his free will. The reason is that G-d judges “measure for measure” (Shabbat 105b). He had said to Abraham, “But also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth” (Genesis 15:14). Certainly it was G-d who decreed the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt, however the Egyptians treated them too cruelly. This is why G-d punished them by hardening their hearts and preventing them from exercising their free will. This greatly increased their hatred for the Children of Israel, as it is written: “Behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight, will they not stone us?” (Exodus 8:22).

We may also explain in this way the Zohar’s interpretation of the verse, “Let us go, you and I, to Pharaoh, for G-d’s help is essential.”

The Sages have advised us to use the good inclination to fight the evil inclination: “If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him study the Torah. …If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema. …If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death” (Berachot 5a). The evil inclination is none other than Pharaoh. To conquer it, a person must feel the need for G-d’s help (“you and I”). Nobody can conquer it without G-d’s help, as our Sages teach (Kiddushin 30b).

Nevertheless, it sometimes occurs that despite diligent Torah study, the recitation of prayers, and calling upon the Creator, a person does not succeed in conquering the evil inclination. He should then know that “It is I Who hardened his heart,” and the reward will be that much greater.

If a person does not succeed in conquering the evil inclination, G-d’s presents him with signs, “plagues.” The first is arbeh (which recalls the plague of locusts) - the harbeh (“intensive study”) of Torah. The second is choshech (which recalls the plague of darkness) – the recitation of the nightly Shema. If a person does not succeed in conquering the evil inclination by means of these two, there remains the plague of the firstborn (which reminds a person of death).

A person should therefore not be frightened by the evil inclination, but instead he must wage a perpetual fight against it. With G-d’s help, he will conquer it through intensive Torah study, sincere faith, and by clinging to his Creator. It is in this way that he will achieve perfection.

“Let us go (!")…to Pharaoh”: The ! is from *1! (“I”, G-d), the " is the second (" having a numerical value of 2), and Pharaoh is the evil inclination. The meaning is, “With you; I will come with you.” The Tzaddikim who strive to conquer the evil inclination will be rewarded both in this world and the World to Come.


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