Parashat Bo begins as the 7th plague - locusts - descends onto the Egyptian landscape. This is followed by days of darkness, and finally the death of firstborn Egyptians. Interestingly, the Torah tells us that following each of the ten plagues, Pharaoh's heart hardens - at first by Pharaoh himself but then God takes control of hardening Pharaoh's heart (see Exodus 10:20 for one example).
This is a most perplexing element to the Exodus story...why would God engage in this way and make Pharaoh angrier, stopping what could have been a shorter version of the "10 Plagues"? In other words, had God not intervened and taken hold of Pharaoh's emotions, might the Israelites been freed sooner and therefore might the Egyptian people have suffered fewer plagues? Why take away Pharaoh's free will? What is God's motivation here?
You are welcome to read through this comprehensive article about all the possible understandings of "hardening hearts". Here are a few highlights:
- Pharaoh's act of keeping the Israelites enslaved is in truth free, despite God's intervention. When God "hardens" Pharaoh's heart, this means merely that he strengthens Pharaoh's heart, giving him the fortitude not to let the plagues automatically dictate a decision to release the Israelites.
- By increasing the king's willpower (by weakening certain desires and/or strengthening others), God, de facto, is allowing Pharaoh to act in accordance with his already formed character, and thus to act freely.
- The king is like a subject who has been hypnotized, and an act performed as a result of hypnotic suggestion is widely regarded as an unfree act.
- God hardens Pharaoh's heart as a means of punishing him. Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the earlier plagues, contrary to God's will; so now his heart becomes hardened by God, contrary to his own will.
Have you ever felt your own heart hardened? Have you ever hurt so much that you felt it physically in the spot where your heart organ sits? What did you do to ameliorate that pain/discomfort/sadness/anger?
How can we work together to reduce individual and collective "heartache"?