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Torah Sparks

January 24, 2004 – 1 Shevat 5764

Annual: Ex. 6:2 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 351; Hertz p. 232)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 8:16 – 9:35 (Etz Hayim p. 362; Hertz p. 240)
Maftir (2d scroll) Numbers 28:9-15 (Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah (Rosh Hodesh) Isaiah 66:1-24, 23 (Etz Hayim p. 1219; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ / RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


6:2-9 – God reminds Moses of the Covenant He made with the patriarchs and announces to him the coming redemption of the Israelites from slavery. Moses tells the Israelites, but they are too fearful to listen to him.

6:10-13 – Moses is disheartened and reluctant to go before Pharaoh.

6:14-27 – The genealogy of the tribe of Levi.

6:28-7-7 – God encourages Moses and Aaron by giving them a glimpse of the successful future of their mission.

7:8-13 – Moses and Aaron demonstrate their miraculous sign before Pharaoh: the staff that transforms into a serpent. Pharaoh's magicians duplicate this feat, but then Aaron's "snake" swallows up theirs.

7:14-9:35 – Plagues 1-7 (1) blood, (2) frogs, (3) lice, (4) wild beasts, (5) pestilence, (6) boils, (7) hail.

Selected Text

You shall say (to Pharaoh) everything that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to send the B’nei Yisrael out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that I can multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you I will lay My hand on Egypt and take out my legions – my people, B’nei Yisrael – from the land of Egypt with great chastisements (i.e., the plagues). (Exodus 7:2-4)

Discussion – Free Will and a Hard Heart

Basic to Judaism is the concept of free will, behirat hofshi. The notion that human beings have free choice is found both in the Torah and in rabbinic literature.

We learn in the Torah that humans have choices: “See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil. I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to observe His mitzvot, statutes and laws … I call the heavens and the earth to witness against you today. I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life…” (Deut 30:15-19)

The Mishnah records Rabbi Akiva’s statement: “Everything is foreseen (by God); however, man has the ability to choose freely.” (Pirke Avot 3:19) The Talmud also relates: “Rabbi Hanina teaches: Everything is in the hands (control) of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.” (Berakhot 33b)

A person should not think, as said by the ignorant … that the Holy One decreed at the time of that person’s creation whether he would be tzadik (righteous) or rasha (wicked). This is not accurate. Rather, each person can be either a tzadik like Moses or a rasha like Jeroboam. A person can be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, stingy or generous and similarly with other traits. There is no one who forces a person or decrees or leads a person to one of two paths; rather a person follows the path of his own will and determination and is inclined to the path he chooses … This is a fundamental principle and one on which the Torah and mitzvot rely. (Maimonides sets as a proof text the above reference from Deut. 30:15 as well as Deut. 11:26 and 5:26) The Creator does not compel people and does not decree do good or bad, rather everything is left to them (i.e., humans’ own choice). (Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 5:2-3)

It is not just our modern sense of justice and fairness that is offended by Pharaoh’s punishment. Rather, the Rabbis, too, were troubled. The midrash relates Rabbi Yohanan’s insight that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart “provides an opening for heretics to claim: ‘There was no opportunity for him (Pharaoh) to do teshuvah.’”

How do we explain this obvious difficulty? One explanation is that stated by the modern (d. 1951) Bible scholar Umberto Cassuto: “In early Hebrew idiom, it was customary to attribute every phenomenon to the direct action of God … Every happening has a number of causes, and these causes, in turn, have other causes, and so on ad infinitum; according to the Israelite conception, the cause of all causes was the will of God … This, now, is how the Torah, which employs human idioms, expresses itself.” Thus, Cassuto suggests that the expression may be understood as a mere idiom with no theological import.

It has also been pointed out by a number of commentators that despite God’s warning that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, this did not occur, at least not immediately. “The first five plagues are accompanied by the passive formulation, that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened [i.e., not that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – see 7:13; after (i) blood, 7:22; after (ii) frogs, 8:11; after (iii) vermin, 8:15; after (iv) swarms of insects 8:28; and after (v) pestilence, 9:7]. Only then HaKadosh Barukh Hu said: ‘Now, even if Pharaoh should want to let them go, I shall not let him.’” With respect to the remaining plagues, the Torah states that God hardened his heart. (Midrash Tanhuma 9:12)

The mishnah in Pirke Avot (4:2) teaches: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah. One mitzvah leads to another, (similarly) one transgression leads to another. When one becomes accustomed to act in a certain manner, that behavior becomes habitual and it can appear as if the person cannot help but act in a consistent manner – as it is beyond that person’s control. Seen in this light, Pharaoh – who was acting as he was accustomed to act, as was in his character to do – although he had free will, appeared to have no control, as he had traveled so far down the path of stubbornness and evil.

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. The plagues did not just affect Pharaoh or even his family and chief advisors; rather, all Egyptians, collectively, suffered the punishment of the plagues. Is there a basis for the imposition of this collective guilt? Did the plagues differ from modern wars, which affect the lives of so many innocents, wars which are often forced by the actions of a small group of leaders?
  2. Another thought to consider is that -- had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart -- Pharaoh might have freed Bnei Yisrael as a direct result of, or in fear of, the plagues. That is, the act of freeing the Israelites would itself have been the result of compulsion, and not freely undertaken. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God enabled him to act freely. Is this explanation satisfactory? How does it impact upon the suffering of the Egyptian people?
  3. According to traditional Jewish law (halakhah), a get (a bill of divorce) must be voluntarily given by a husband to a wife. A get that is forced, or produced under duress (known as a get meusah), is invalid. Rabbinic authorities, when faced with a recalcitrant husband (one who refused his wife a get), would resort to various forms of compulsion until the husband -- freed by this technique from the compulsion of the yetzer ha’ra – would be “free” to give what the Rabbis deemed to be a valid get. How does this technique relate to God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart?

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