Blood, frogs, lice or gnats, swarms of vermin, livestock disease, skin disease, hail, locusts, impenetrable darkness, death of the firstborn. Why does it take ten miraculous plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo before Pharaoh lets the Israelite slaves go?1
When Moses first returns to Egypt, he and his brother Aaron simply ask the new pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves three days off to make animal sacrifices to their God in the wilderness.2 Pharaoh replies that he does not know this god. Then he increases the workload of the Israelites, so they will not even think about taking a vacation. Ruling through oppression is the model his father used, the only model he knows.
Moses and Aaron return to perform a small demonstration miracle. Aaron throws down a staff that turns into a crocodile.3 Pharaoh summons his wonder-workers, who perform a similar trick. Even though Aaron’s magic crocodile eats the Egyptians’ magic crocodiles, Pharaoh refuses to be impressed.
Vayechezak, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken. And God said to Moses: “Kaveid is the leiv of Pharaoh; he refuses to let the people go”. (Exodus 7:13-14)
vayechezak (וַיֶּחֶזַק) = and it hardened, became stronger, became unyielding. (From the same root as chazak, חָזָק = strong, firm, resolute.)
leiv (לֵב) = heart; conscious mind, conscious thoughts and feelings.
kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, dull and slow, immobilized; oppressive, impressive.
Pharaoh’s mind is already so heavy that it “hardens” itself; he dismisses questions before they arise, and continues to behave as he always has.
We are what we learn
Moses and the current pharaoh both grew up in the Egyptian court. But Moses was the son of Israelite slaves before he was adopted by an Egyptian princess, and he never forgot his origins. As a young man, he left Egypt and joined a Midianite clan east of Sinai. Thus he learned how to adapt to novel situations with curiosity and an open mind. When he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed he approached it, and when he heard God’s voice he believed it.
Nevertheless, Moses argued with God. At the burning bush he tried five times to get out of returning to Egypt as God’s prophet before he finally accepted his mission and changed his life again.4
The old pharaoh’s firstborn son, on the other hand, grew up knowing he would someday succeed his father as the god-like ruler of Egypt. All he had to do was learn his predefined role. He had no reason to question anything, no new situations to master.
After the staff-crocodile demonstration the miraculous plagues begin: seven in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, and three this week in Bo. Several times Pharaoh promises Moses and Aaron that if they get God to end the current plague, he will let the Israelites go for three days.5 But as soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh goes back on his promise. After each plague, Pharaoh’s leiv returns to being either chazak or kaveid. He acts as if he can continue to depend on the labor of his Israelite slaves, and their God will not afflict the country with another miracle.
Pharaoh’s mind hardens on its own after six of the plagues, but God ensures its rigidity after the plagues of skin disease, locusts, and darkness.
After the sixth plague, a skin rash with boils,
Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken to Moses. (Exodus 9:12)
Vayechazeik (וַיְחַזֵּק) = and [God] hardened, strengthened, made rigid. (Another verb form from the same root as chazak.)
Why does God intervene? One possibility is that Pharaoh is finally wavering, wondering whether his refusal to listen to Moses is taking too a high toll on his country—or on his own body. Is his “heart” softening, his mind becoming a little more flexible? If so, God apparently wants to prevent Pharaoh from changing his mind too soon, before God has finished the whole demonstration.
During the plagues of locusts and darkness in this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh switches from empty promises to genuine offers—with conditions. While the locusts are devouring all the remaining crops, he offers to let the Israelite men go, as long as their children remain hostage in Egypt. Moses refuses the condition.
Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not let the Israelites go. (Exodus 10:20)
During the plague of impenetrable darkness, Pharaoh offers to let all the Israelites go for three days, as long as they leave their flocks and herds behind. Again Moses refuses.
Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, so he was not willing to let them go. (Exodus 10:27)
Pharaoh remains attached to being the all-powerful ruler of an economy based on slavery. Is God or Pharaoh responsible for the king’s inability to imagine a new world order?
If God is deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s mind, then the king of Egypt has no free will. God is depriving Pharaoh of the ability to make choices.
The idea that God can remove a human being’s free will has disturbed commentators through the ages. The ability to make our own choices is part of being human, according to the book of Genesis; God gave Adam and Eve the ability to decide whether to eat from the Tree of Knowledge or not. And we all prefer to believe that we are not automatons, that it is possible for us to choose and change.
Other commentators have argued that God hardens Pharaoh’s mind not by making him more stubborn, but by giving him the courage to bear the suffering caused by his bad choices. God does not want Pharaoh to make a reasonable decision because he realizes that his country is collapsing into poverty and disease. Instead, God wants Pharaoh to believe in the power of God and repent. So instead of making Pharaoh more stubborn, God gives Pharaoh the courage to bear the suffering of Egypt.6
Yet the Torah describes God as making Pharaoh’s heart chazak and kaveid, the same two words it uses for what Pharaoh does to himself. It does not use an alternate word or phrase to indicate strengthening by instilling courage.7
Another possible reading of God’s intervention is that Pharaoh’s mind is already so inflexible that God does not need to make it any more rigid. He has developed an ingrained habit of hardening his heart the moment a disaster ends.
Some commentators have written that the book of Exodus gives God credit for the power of habit. God made humans so that the longer someone persists in doing evil, the harder it becomes to switch to doing good.8
Modern neuroscience shows that the human brain cannot make an unaccustomed choice in the heat of the moment. The choice happens and our words or actions are triggered before we become consciously aware of what we have already decided. In order to make a free choice, we have to train ourselves to pause as soon as we become aware of our reaction, then give ourselves time to make a conscious decision.
One last time
When Moses announces the tenth plague, death of the firstborn, he storms out before Pharaoh can react. Why should he listen to another empty promise, another unacceptable bargain?
In the middle of the night, death strikes the oldest son of everyone in Egypt, from the Pharaoh to the lowest slave—except for the Israelites who are safe inside the houses they have marked with lamb’s blood for that night.9 Only after his own son is killed does Pharaoh come to Moses and insist that all the Israelites must leave, without conditions. In the morning, the exodus from Egypt begins.
Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, Pharaoh reconsiders one more time. The damage has been done, so why should he lose so many slaves whose labor could help rebuild Egypt? He sends an army to pursue his ex-slaves across the wilderness. Pharaoh has not truly broken his habit.
Some of us are like Pharaoh, and cannot break our bad habits for more than a day, even after life has hammered at us from every side. Yet many of us are like Moses; although we may refuse to accept our calling five times, we then find the courage to change and do what really needs to be done. What a blessing to know that Moses’ response is also possible!
May every mind that has become hard and heavy finally open, and receive the blessing of change.
- Psalm 78 lists seven plagues, and Psalm 105 lists eight. See my post Va-eira & Bo: Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles.
- Exodus 5:1.
- When God rehearses this demonstration with Moses in Exodus 4:1-5, Moses’ staff becomes a nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. Most modern scholars attribute this version of the demonstration miracle to a story from the northern kingdom of Israel, the “E” source. In the demonstration in 7:10, Aaron throws down the staff and it becomes a tannin (תַנִּין) = crocodile, cobra, or other large reptile. This version is considered a later addition from the “P” source, written by priests sometime after the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem was built.
- See my post last week, Ve-eira and Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
- Frogs (Exodus 8:4), swarms of vermin (Exodus 8:21-24), and hail (Exodus 9:27-28).
- Nehama Leibowitz cites 15th-century rabbi Joseph Albo and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno in New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, translated by Aryeh Newman, Zion Ezra Production, Maor Wallach Press, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 152-153.
- For example, Deuteronomy 2:30 uses the phrase imeitz et levavo (אִמֵּץ אֶת־לְבַבוֹ) to say that God had made King Sihon’s heart braver.
- Rambam (12th-century rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, chapter 5, cited in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, pp. 155-156.
- Exodus 12:21-23.