This week’s action-packed portion brings us seven of the 10 plagues that God inflicts on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Pharaoh is the archenemy of the Israelites, and God uses the plea for deliverance as a chance to display God’s power through the plagues. The drama between these two larger than life figures begins to unfold.
We identify with the Israelites in the story — they are our ancestors. Yet if we can try to identify with Pharaoh, there is a powerful lesson to be learned from him. Pharaoh struggles with stubbornness and a hardening of his heart in response to the plagues, and stubbornness and heart-hardening are something we all must deal with and try to counteract in our own lives.
Before the plagues even come, God warns Moses: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This is a difficult verse, because it implies that Pharaoh does not have free will in the matter, if God is hardening his heart.
Yet in the first five plagues, when Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go, the text refers to him hardening his own heart or acting in a stubborn manner. Only beginning with the sixth plague does the language shift to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Before God acts on Pharaoh in this way, Pharaoh chooses to close his heart against Moses and the Israelites.
We have all been in this situation, if on a less dramatic scale. Every day, with my own children, there is a moment — maybe I am tired, or frustrated, or trying to complete a task — when they want my attention and I stubbornly ignore them or close my heart.
If this is possible with people we love, how much harder can our hearts become when we are confronted with people we disagree with, or people who are doing harm in the world? But if we continue to harden our hearts against these people, how can we learn to compromise or even forgive? These two actions are necessary to move forward and to live with other people.
In Pharaoh, stubbornness builds upon stubbornness, making it as if he has lost his free will. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings these Talmudic sources to bear on the matter: “Rav Assi said: At first the evil impulse is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart-rope,” and “Rava said: “At first the evil impulse is called a ‘wayfarer,’ then a ‘guest,’ then finally a ‘master.’ ”
In Pharaoh’s case, the evil impulse — which I think of as the impulse that directs us to think only of ourselves and ignore the needs of others — is his heart hardening. Eventually, it becomes a habit, which rules over him and makes him its slave, unable to protect his own people by letting the Israelites go.
The portion also gives us a clue to the antidote to this heart hardening. The people do not believe Moses when he says that God will deliver them because their spirit is “cut short.” Rashi observes that the word for spirit and wind are the same (ruach), thus “One who is in distress is short of breath, and can hardly draw his lungs full of air.”
When we feel our hearts hardening, one thing we can do is breathe air into our hearts, expanding them and opening them rather than closing them off. We can even learn from our enemies, whom we are more like than we often believe.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.