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by Stuart W.    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"I will harden Pharaoh's heart. . .and Pharaoh will not listen to you" (Exodus 7:3-4).



"I will harden Pharaoh's heart. . .and Pharaoh will not listen to you" (Exodus 7:3-4).

From the outset, Hashem informs Moses that Pharaoh will not be overly anxious to free the Jewish people from their servitude. But more than that, in this week's Torah portion Hashem tells Moses that He will not allow Pharaoh to make the decision to free the Jewish people. The commentaries point out, based upon an analysis of the terminology used by the Torah at the conclusion of each plague, that the ten plagues can be divided up into two sets of five. During the first five plagues, Hashem gave Pharaoh the choice whether or not to send out the Jews, and after each one the verse reports that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and refused to let them go. However, during the final five plagues, in keeping with Hashem's statement to Moses quoted above, the verses say that Hashem caused Pharaoh's heart to become hardened, preventing Pharaoh from sending them out even if he had wanted to.

Many of the commentators raise a fundamental question on this passage. We know that the gates of repentance are open for everyone who wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem. No matter how far a person has strayed from the proper path, he can always come back. This being so, how could Hashem take away Pharaoh's ability to choose to send the Jewish people from Egypt? What about his freedom of choice to repent from his evil ways?

The commentaries offer various suggestions to answer this question. Among them is the Sforno, a classic 16th century Torah commentator. He explains that in truth, Hashem did not take away Pharaoh's free choice. If Pharaoh had wanted to repent, the gates of repentance remained open and waiting for him. In that case, what does the Torah mean when it repeatedly says that "Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart"? It means exactly what it says - Hashem made Pharaoh so desensitized and oblivious to the effects of the plagues that they were not able to scare him into letting the Jews go. Hashem wanted Pharaoh to send the Jews amidst a feeling of repentance, not out of fear. Hashem had given Pharaoh five chances to see the Divine power during the first five plagues and act upon what should have been his newly-acquired realization that Hashem runs the world. However, when Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to let these supernatural events have an impact on him, Hashem did not allow the subsequent plagues to have an impact on him, either. Nevertheless, Pharaoh still had the option to repent and let the Jews go if he wished to. Hashem simply prevented him from letting the Jews go amidst fear of the plagues, but he still had the choice to let them go amidst a feeling of repentance and willingness to subjugate himself to Hashem's kingship.

When one thinks about it, it seems very strange that Pharaoh experienced all of these unbelievable miracles and (at least during the first five plagues) did not allow any of them to have an impact on him. The truth is, however, that this happens to us all the time. How many times do we see miracles in our own lives and let them pass without internalizing what happened? Each of us has his or her own story to tell: how he miraculously survived a car accident, how she missed a flight that crashed, how he landed a job he never dreamed he would get, how she was saved from a potentially life-threatening illness, and so on. Of course, we thank Hashem profusely at the time of our salvation, but what about afterwards? Do we accept upon ourselves to do something - such as to give more charity, to attend synagogue services on a more regular basis, to increase our Torah study - as a result of what Hashem did for us? Or do we just forget about it and let life go on its ho-hum way?

We have to let ourselves be impacted by the good things that happen to us, to thank Hashem for them and to recognize that good things happen because Hashem is watching over us and cares about what happens to His people. We have to let these events change our lives for the better. In this way we will hopefully avoid making Pharaoh's mistake and will continually draw closer to Hashem.


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