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Lessons from Paraoh's Heart - The Weekly Shiur - Parashat Bo 5780

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Are you familiar with the game “Where’s Waldo?” Today we are playing “Where’s Pharaoh’s heart?” We are going to search for all the places where the Torah mentions the heart of this irredeemably evil person who does not allow us to go out from slavery to freedom. When we make this search, it is surprising to discover how many times Pharaoh’s heart is mentioned in the Torah.

I once read a request from Rav Steinsaltz not to look upon Pharaoh as evil since, in fact, we have more in common with him than we do with Moshe Rabbeinu… in other words, there is much we can learn from Pharaoh.  He is not a remote or alien evil person but an archetype who exists inside of us.

Until the first five plagues have ended, Pharaoh’s heart is described in these words:

וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה'

But Pharaoh's heart remained steadfast, and he did not hearken to them (Moshe and Aharon), as the Lord had spoken. (Exodus 7:13, 8:15)

or in these:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה כָּבֵ֖ד לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה מֵאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלַּ֥ח הָעָֽם

In other words, Pharaoh rules, he’s in charge, he decides how his heart will react. And then, after the sixth plague of boils ends, there is a dramatic change:

וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה

But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not hearken to them, as the Lord spoke to Moses. (Exodus 9:12)

Afterwards, seeing that Pharaoh’s heart has not changed, HaShem once more takes control of it.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה בּא אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִי הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ.

The Lord said to Moses: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart…” (Exodus 10:1)

And there are similar passages after the eighth and ninth plagues.

At a certain stage, HaShem hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he does not control its decisions alone. What happened? Why is the Torah so concerned with what is happening inside Pharaoh’s heart? Because it us teaching us a most important lesson: when free choice is not properly utilized, it vanishes altogether with the passage of time.

It would appear that what we are really talking about is addiction. All of us understand that there are physical addictions. Let’s imagine someone addicted to cigarettes. How much choice was there before smoking the first cigarette? A great deal. With the second cigarette, too. But after five years, when the addiction demands two packs a day and each new cigarette is pulled automatically from the pack without thinking, how much choice is there?

We need to internalize the following principle: addiction applies to good character traits and habits as well as to bad ones! This is true with following Torah and doing mitzvot as well as in less positive pursuits and habits. Let’s take lying as an example. There is a difference in the control we have over the first as opposed to the millionth lie, no?

Professor Nehama Leibowitz writes wonderfully about this, and in my opinion she does not discuss this at length arbitrarily. Generally, she almost never brings her own ideas into the discussion and allows us to understand the commentators solely from their own words. But here she explains in her own words, expansively and beautifully:

Every decision concerning which of two paths to take is always in a person’s hands, but it is only at the beginning that the two possibilities are available in equal measure. Once a choice is made and a path is taken, no future choice will be as easy as that first one. If the first choice made was a wrong one, the longer a person persists in following that path, the more difficult it becomes to choose the right path and, if free choice is always available, it is not as free and limitless as it was initially. Thus, it is not HaShem who makes getting back on the right path more difficult but rather the person who persists in piling up obstacles on the road back to the right path. And HaShem created people in this manner that sins create a barrier to teshuva, to returning to Him. Thus, it is the person who chooses, opening or hardening his or her heart, and HaShem assists according to that person’s desire, in whichever direction he or she wants to go".

Rav Jonathan Sacks, in his book “Covenant and Conversation,” says that this is the salient point in the story of Pharaoh:

Freedom in the deepest sense, the freedom to do the right and the good, is not a given. We acquire it, or lose it, gradually. In the end tyrants bring about their own destruction, whereas those with willpower, courage and the willingness to go against the consensus, acquire a monumental freedom. That is what Judaism is: an invitation to freedom

In short, if you are an evil tyrant, you slowly close your options. But wait a moment, even evil people have hope since it is always possible to choose good. It’s not written that HaShem locks Pharaoh’s heart, only that He hardens it. A person can choose a better path. Some of the most hardened addicts succeeded in getting clean. It’s difficult but it’s possible. Free choice is always there, but it diminishes with the passage of time when you are on the wrong path. This is a message of our Exodus from Egypt, here and now. Thank you very much.


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