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Home » PARSHAT BO – PHARAOH’S HARDENED HEART: A DIVINE LESSON IN FREE WILL AND REPENTANCE

PARSHAT BO – PHARAOH’S HARDENED HEART: A DIVINE LESSON IN FREE WILL AND REPENTANCE

בס”ד

PARSHAT Bo 5784

Exodus 10:1-2

1The L-rd said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst, אוַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ”הֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹֽתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ:
2and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son’s son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the L-rd.” בוּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֨לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹֽתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּֽי־אֲנִ֥י יְ”הֹוָֽה

The story of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in Exodus 10:1-2 reveals profound insights into the relationship between human free will and G-d’s sovereignty. In the biblical passage, G-d instructs Moses not only to go to Pharaoh but to come with Him to Pharaoh. This symbolizes G-d’s active involvement and control over the situation.

G-d declares that He has hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his servants, implying that Pharaoh’s resistance to letting the Israelites go is not a result of Moses’ failure but rather a divine providence. This is a crucial message to reassure Moses that G-d’s plan is unfolding regardless of Pharaoh’s reactions.

The specific instruction to place these signs “in his midst” emphasizes the personal confrontation with Pharaoh. This recalls Pharaoh’s previous attitude in Exodus 5:2, where he questioned, “Who is the L-rd, that I should heed His voice to let Israel out?” Pharaoh does not recognize G-d, Hashem, as a supernatural force and attempts to explain each of the plagues as natural occurrences or the work of magic.

2And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the L-rd, neither will I let Israel out.” בוַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֨עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְגַ֥ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ

Why then must Moses warn if Pharaoh’s heart is hardened? The warning serves as a testimony for future generations, a lesson passed down from father to son. The goal is not only to convince Pharaoh but also to transmit G-d’s signs and wonders to the descendants so that they will know He is the Lord.

One of the “signs” that G-d shows to Pharaoh is that a person has free will only because G-d grants it to them. Pharaoh is punished with his own sin, so to speak. He said, “I do as I please. Who is G-d that I should listen to Him?” And now G-d acts in His way, while Pharaoh unknowingly follows His will.

The complex question arises: if G-d has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, why should Moses warn him? The interpretations of Maimonides (Rambam) and Rashi offer different perspectives. Maimonides believes that Teshuvah (repentance) was impossible for Pharaoh, while Rashi suggests it was more challenging but not entirely excluded. Both emphasize the importance of bearing witness to G-d’s power and the possibility of repentance, even in difficult circumstances.

The Rambam and Rashi approach this question from different perspectives. According to the Rambam, it was impossible for Pharaoh to repent; Teshuvah was ruled out. Rashi, on the other hand, asserts that Pharaoh could indeed have repented, but it would have been much more difficult than usual. Nevertheless, Rashi emphasizes that every small step a person takes towards God is met with a greater step from God towards the individual.

The Rambam focuses on a natural perspective. A person can become so entangled in their own sin, righteousness, and ego that repentance seems impossible. Similar to an addict who, despite knowing their behavior is wrong, continues due to ever-present “logical” excuses. Pharaoh repeatedly refused to let the people go, unable to bear the humiliation, persisting in his error. This natural behavior, stemming from his ego, made repentance impossible for him.

Rashi looks at the situation from a supernatural perspective. Normally, Pharaoh wouldn’t have repented, but when a person is in dire straits, they can sometimes achieve more than usual. An example is the story of a father who saw his daughter trapped under a car. Without hesitation, he partially lifted the car to free his daughter, something he could never do under normal circumstances. This principle, where stress and fear make our physical bodies capable of more than usual, also applies to our souls. If the soul is truly under pressure, it can engage in a form of repentance that would otherwise be impossible. This applies to Pharaoh as well; the plagues could have prompted his soul to repent if he had realized how great God was, that God transcends nature and holds power over him.

The parallels with King Manasseh show that even in seemingly hopeless situations, repentance is possible, depending on the individual’s willingness to show humility. Pharaoh, however, clings to his ego and refuses to acknowledge the greatness of G-d. (2 Chronicles chapter 33)

But Pharaoh did not do this. Rav Kook points out that despite seeing that G-d was stronger than he, Pharaoh, with various irrational arguments, wanted to continue denying this reality. He persisted in convincing himself that he was not created by G-d, but rather, he was in control, as we read in Ezekiel 29:3.


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Speak and you shall say; So says the L-rd G-d: Behold I am upon you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies down in the midst of its rivers, who said, “My river is my own, and I made myself.”    
 גדַּבֵּ֨ר וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר | אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱ”הֹוִ֗ה הִֽנְנִ֚י עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ פַּרְעֹ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֔יִם הַתַּנִּים֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל הָֽרֹבֵ֖ץ בְּת֣וֹךְ יְאֹרָ֑יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָמַ֛ר לִ֥י יְאֹרִ֖י וַֽאֲנִ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽנִי

And it was for this reason that G-d made a mockery of Pharaoh and the Egyptians who stood behind him. They had nothing to boast about themselves; eventually, the world would have to acknowledge that there is one G-d and King of the World who determines and governs everything. As we read in Exodus 15:18 and Zechariah 14:9:


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The L-rd will reign to all eternity
 יחיְ”הֹוָ֥ה | יִמְלֹ֖ךְ לְעֹלָ֥ם וָעֶֽד

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And the L-rd shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the L-rd be one, and His name one.
 טוְהָיָ֧ה יְ”הֹוָ֛ה לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִֽהְיֶ֧ה יְ”הֹוָ֛ה אֶחָ֖ד וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד

During the celebration of Pesach, Jews reflect on these lessons. They tell their children the wonders of the Exodus (not about the mockery of the Egyptians) So became the story of the Exodus a symbol of redemption and faith in G-d’s supernatural capabilities, even when human logic falls short. It emphasizes the value of Teshuvah (repentance). Even when this seems illogical or impossible, the path of reconciliation is always open. True free choice is the decision to strengthen and enhance your emunah (faith) in G-d and trust that everything is possible with Him.

Learning Points

1. G-d’s Sovereignty and Human Response

   The confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh exposes the tension between G-d’s sovereignty, which hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and human responsibility to respond to divine warnings. The story emphasizes that despite divine guidance, people remain accountable for their choices.

2. Life Lessons for Future Generations

   Moses’ command to warn Pharaoh, despite his hardened heart, serves as a timeless example of the duty to testify to God’s power and strive for justice, even when the response is not immediately positive.

3. Diverse Perspectives on Repentance

   The interpretations of Rambam and Rashi regarding Pharaoh’s capacity for repentance reflect the diversity of human experiences. This invites contemplation on the complexity of repentance, where some may need to delve deeper than others. The nuances highlight that repentance is not straightforward and requires different approaches.


By Angelique Sijbolts

Sources:

נתיבות שלום
Kol Yehuda by Rabbi Yehuda Amital
Chabad: Kehot Chumash Bo

With thanks to B. Yaniger for the inspiration and feedback

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