Creatures of Habit

Va'era By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 20, 2007 / 5767

Why did God “harden Pharaoh’s heart”? To what extent was God acting justly or fairly? How may we understand God’s gesture in light of free choice? Parashat Va-era presents a classic challenge to our modern sensibilities. Yet ours is not the first generation to ask these questions.

One answer offered by Cassuto (Italy and Israel, 1883–1951, Commentary to Exodus, 56) is that the expression of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is simply the Hebrew idiom. All actions are attributed ultimately to God, and there is no difference between the meanings of “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

Sforno (Italy, 1475–1550) presents an alternative view. In this case, ironically the hardening of the heart is the only means to ensure free will:

In the face of such impressive miracles and signs, had not Pharaoh’s heart been hardened, the latter would have let the Israelites go, but his action would not have then been motivated by sincere repentance and submission to the Divine will, but merely because he could not bear the suffering of the plagues…. But God hardened his heart, fortified his resistance to enable him to endure the plagues and refrain from letting the Israelites go… so that they might thereby acknowledge My greatness and goodness and turn to Me in true repentance. (Sforno on Exodus)

While each of the above responses piques our interest, Nechama Leibowitz (Latvia and Israel, 1905–1997) prolific commentator of Torah, offers a more compelling interpretation, based on the writings of Maimonides (Spain and Egypt, 1138–1204). Leibowitz dismisses Cassuto’s comment by showing a specific pattern in the idioms used: in response to each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Only after the sixth plague, boils, does the Torah state “vayechazek et lev Paroh” (“And He hardened Pharaoh’s heart”), and after every subsequent plague, similar language occurs. At first, Pharaoh sets his own course. However, with every plague, it becomes more difficult for him to change his pattern. His reactions become habitual, until gradually it is impossible for him to change.

This last interpretation is based on the Talmudic passage, “Said Reish Lakish: What is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 3:34) ‘If to scorners He will scorn, but to the meek He will show favor’? If a person tries to defile himself, he is given an opening; if he tries to purify himself, he is helped (from Above)” (BT Shabbat 104a).

Thoughts and actions eventually form our habits, personalities, and world views. May we each make an effort to direct our thoughts and actions to the way we would wish them to be, permanently.

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