This week’s parashah, Bo, lays at the heart of the story of the Exodus. Seven plagues have already befallen Egypt, yet, Pharaoh continues to enslave the Israelites. This week, Moses continues to approach Pharaoh, asking him to let the Israelites go and warning him that the plagues will continue until he does. But each time Moses approaches Pharaoh, we read: vay’azzek A-donai et lev par’oh, that God strengthens the heart of Pharaoh, and Pharaoh does not let the Israelites go. This pattern continues through the final three plagues: locusts, darkness and the death of the first born. It is only then, when the suffering of both Pharaoh and his people has become so great, that Pharaoh releases the Israelites and the plagues come to an end.
There is something that initially seems both disconcerting and incongruous about this pattern. How could the same God who hears our suffering and redeems us from oppression also be the One who strengthens Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to bring suffering and death not only upon himself but on all his people? We think of God as the God of justice and righteousness, but how could it possibly be just or right to punish Pharaoh for enslaving the Israelites when it seems that it was not Pharaoh’s choice to continue acting as oppressor, but God’s?
If we read the story carefully, however, we realize that it is not so simple. Yes, after the plagues of boils, locusts and darkness, and again after a warning about the final plague, we read that God strengthens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh does not set the Israelites free. But this is not always the case. In response to the first five plagues, we read simply vayye’ezak lev par’oh, that Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened, or vayyakhbed par’oh et libbo, that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Initially, God plays no role in Pharaoh’s decision-making. As a midrash in Exodus Rabbah says, “When the Holy Blessed One saw that Pharaoh would not repent as a result of the first five plagues, from then onward the Holy Blessed One said, ‘even if he wants to retract what he has done, I will strengthen his heart in order to spread my judgment over him.’” It is only after Pharaoh has five opportunities to have mercy and free the Israelites, only after Pharaoh chooses five times to harden his own heart against the oppression of others, that God steps in. And even then, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart, God merely strengthens Pharaoh’s resolve.
While this might still seem problematic (couldn’t God change Pharaoh’s resolve, rather than making it stronger? Or at the very least have left Pharaoh alone?), there is something very real about this idea. Each time we walk past someone who is suffering, it becomes a little easier to do so again; each time we try to ignore the cries of others, we become less likely to notice their pain. When we harden our hearts, that resolve is strengthened.
However, the opposite is true as well. Each time we listen to the cries of the oppressed, we become more aware of the suffering and needs around us. Each time we give to someone in need, we cultivate an attitude of generosity. As the rabbis of the Talmud said, “a person who comes to defile themselves is given an opening to do so; while one who comes to purify themselves is helped.” If God can strengthen Pharaoh’s resolve to harden his heart to the cries of the oppressed, then God can also strengthen our resolve to soften and open our hearts to the needs of others.
Perhaps that is why the Torah tells us that God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart: to remind us that God strengthens our own resolve as well. The first step is up to us (or perhaps the first five steps, as was the case with Pharaoh). If we choose to act selfishly, to be cruel and oppressive, then we will be more inclined to do so in the future.
However, if we choose compassion over hatred, generosity over selfishness, the right and the just over the easy and self-serving, then God will strengthen our resolve, opening our hearts and supporting us as we work to make the world a more holy place.
Rachel Zerin is the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.