Treating the Hardened Heart - וארא

Friday, 20 January, 2023 - 1:46 pm


Treating the Hardened Heart

Philosophers, theologians, and Biblical commentators grappled with the meaning of the Biblical phrase, repeated multiple times in the story of the Exodus: "and I {G-d} will harden Pharaoh's heart". Is it possible that G-d took away Pharaoh's free choice, causing him to refuse to let the Jewish people go free, bringing upon himself and his people plague after plague? Isn't freedom of choice a foundation of morality? Wouldn't it be unjust to punish Pharaoh for actions for which he had no choice?

There are a wide array of interpretations. Abarrbenel explains that Pharaoh did not lose his ability to choose. "I will harden Pharaoh's heart", means that G-d removed each of the plagues, allowing Pharaoh to continue to sin by refusing to free the Jewish people. Maimonides argues that as a consequence of his wickedness, Pharaoh was punished with losing his free will. The plagues that followed were punishments, not for his refusal to release the Jews after losing the free choice, but for his prior choice to enslave the Jews of his own free will. 

When Rashi describes the plagues, he uses two words, "testify" and "warn":

for the plague would be in effect for a quarter of a month, and for three quarters [of the month], he [Moses] would testify and warn them. (Rashi 7:25) 

While "testify" implies that the plague will undoubtedly come about, "warn" implies that it is conditional; Pharaoh is being warned to let the people go lest the plague unfold. 

As the plagues continue to unfold, the Torah continues to assert that Pharaoh's heart was hardened: 

The Lord said to Moses: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst, (Exodus 10:1)

Nevertheless, Rashi insists that Pharaoh retained his free will and had the option to free the Jewish people. Rashi explains that the purpose of Moses speaking to Pharah was to warn him: "The Lord said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh: and warn him." 

Rashi teaches us a profound lesson. Sometimes we feel that our "hearts are hardened". We feel that destructive habits, and harmful patterns of behavior, have molded our personality and formed neuro-pathways that we cannot undo. Sometimes we feel that G-d himself has "hardened our heart" by creating circumstances over which we have no control and that we are therefore subjected and enslaved to our circumstances. 

We often will feel that our hearts, or the hearts of others, have been hardened. Rashi reminds us that the "hardening of the heart" is superficial. The essence of our soul, and the soul of every person, is a spark of the infinite G-d that has the capacity to shatter the shell and ignite a fire of holiness. We are free to break out of our negative habits and positive and healthy routines. For the essence of our soul remains infinite and free. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Bo 16 Sicha 1 

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