Did God really harden Pharaoh’s heart?Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
There are two points to be shared in this week’s portion, Bo:
First is in the very beginning of the passage, “Come to Pharaoh for I have made his heart, and the heart of his servants hard, so my signs can be made known to him.” This raises an obvious question — Judaism teaches that G-d does not interfere with the personal actions of individuals. Here, as can clearly be interpreted, G-d is doing exactly that with Pharaoh.
While the wording indeed seems to indicate G-d is interfering with Pharaoh’s actions, it certainly is not the case. Every time Pharaoh refused the command of G-d to let the Jewish people go and serve him, Pharaoh’s heart hardened to the point making it less possible for Pharaoh to agree. All together, Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is mentioned 19 times here.
But Pharaoh would not allow himself to be swayed; each time his stance would be stronger and more stubborn. Even the idea of G-d in Pharaoh’s thinking would harden his heart. Pharaoh could not conceive that there was any force more powerful than himself. In that respect, G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart — or rather the idea of G-d.
The second point is in verse 10 of Chapter 10, where there is a passage in which Pharaoh says to Moses, “The evil intent is opposite your faces.” The Hebrew word rawahw, (evil) is interpreted by certain midrashim (Jewish folklore) as the name of a star. And this star is referred to as “the star of blood.” Some believe it is the planet Mars. Mars is red. Pharaoh, being into magic and astrology, believed that this star was to meet the Jewish people in the dessert and take them away from further service to him and wipe out Egypt.
Moses always asked Pharaoh before each plague, “Let my people go, so that they may serve their G-d in the wilderness.” but conveyed to Pharaoh they would return to serve him as slaves. Of course Moses never intended for the people to return, and in this particular case Pharaoh lets him know that he is certainly aware of this and declines Moses’ request.
This demonstrates how lost and sick Pharaoh was. Moses’ request was very simple, and yet Pharaoh became enamored with all kinds of concepts and imaginings.
Both of these points together really explain what is meant by the passages “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” and G-d mentioning, “I have hardened his heart.” When someone is so caught up with notions beyond even their own control, there is no room or open space for negotiation or reasoning of any kind. All Moses asked for was the exit of the people — nothing more, nothing less. It was Pharaoh who took the concept to wild extremes.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)