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Who Hardened the Heart?

But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. — Exodus 7:22

This Torah portion for this week is Va’eira, which means “and I appeared,” from Exodus 6:2–9:35, and the Haftorah is from Ezekiel 28:25–29:21.

The case of the hardened heart begins when God told Moses that although Aaron would ask Pharaoh to “let my people go,” Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened and he would not relent. God told Moses, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart . . . he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:3). It appears from the text that God caused Pharaoh’s heart to become hardened, which kept him from repenting and letting the Israelites go. This begs the question: Is that really fair?

Can we blame Pharaoh for remaining so stubborn and unyielding when it seems that God forced him to be that way? Indeed, after the first plague, the Scriptures tell us, “Pharaoh’s heart became hard.” Did he ever stand a chance? Was repentance even possible?

The case gets a bit more complicated after plague number two when, after first promising to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to keep them as slaves after all. According to the text, this was no act of God – “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart” (Exodus 8:15). Here, it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart!

So who was responsible? Who made Pharaoh so stubborn, so cruel, so blind, and so heartless? Was it Pharaoh, or was it God?

The Jewish sages teach that it was both. For the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It is only after plague number six that we read, “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12). God gave Pharaoh five chances to repent and to soften his heart. But after Pharaoh had so distorted his own humanity, he lost the opportunity to repent. His heart was hardened to the point of no return.

The sages learn a powerful lesson from the case of Pharaoh’s heart that is applicable to everyone. When we first sin, we feel it deeply in our heart. The second time, we feel it a little less so. By the third time we are even more desensitized. If we continue with our misdeeds, we eventually get to the place where we can no longer feel them at all. Our hearts become hardened!

We need to watch out for this trap and stop sin when it starts. Additionally, we need to search our hearts, find the hard spots, and make a conscious effort to soften them. Maybe once there was a time when gossip felt wrong, but do we even pause now? Once, lewdness was intolerable, but do we even flinch now? We need to re-sensitize our souls and soften our hearts. Only then can we hear God’s messages and heed His call.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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January 25, 2017
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