“Even a Hardened Heart has a Silver Lining”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In last week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, G-d instructed Moses that when he finally confronts Pharaoh he should tell the Egyptian ruler to allow the people of Israel to leave so that they may celebrate in the wilderness. Exodus 3:18 “Nayl’chah nah deh’rech sh’lo’shet ya’meem ba’mid’bar v’niz’b’chah la’Hashem Eh’lo’kay’noo,” allow us to go for a three day journey into the wilderness and we shall bring offerings to the Lord, our G-d. As G-d had previously indicated to Moses, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, does not allow the people to go. It will only be through the Al-mighty’s strong hand that Pharaoh will send the people out.

Annoyed with Moses’ intervention, Pharaoh increases the burdens on the Israelites, refusing to give the Hebrew slaves straw to make the bricks and warning them to produce the same quota of materials as before. As a result of the increased labor, the officers (work foremen) of the Children of Israel express their displeasure with Moses and Aaron and accuse them of making the people of Israel abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his servants and giving the Egyptians cause to attack them.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, G-d provides Moses and Aaron with a series of “wonders” that they may employ to convince Pharaoh that they are legitimate messengers of the Al-mighty who speak in His name. Despite the miraculous staff that turns into a serpent, Pharaoh hardens his heart. Scripture tells us (Exodus 7:13): “Va’yeh’cheh’zahk layv Pharaoh, v’lo sha’mah ah’lay’hem, ka’ah’sher dee’ber Hashem.” Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen to them [Moses and Aaron] as G-d had predicted.

The ten plagues are then visited upon Pharaoh and his countrymen. After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh again responds by hardening his heart. After each of the last five plagues, it is G-d who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. [For an analysis of the issue of G-d hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see Parashat Vaeira 5760-2000.]

When considering the issue of G-d hardening Pharaoh’s heart, focus is naturally placed on the question of the loss of Pharaoh’s free will. Because of this preoccupation, it is often not sufficiently acknowledged that had Pharaoh’s heart not been hardened and had he allowed the people to worship in the wilderness, the Jews would have had to return to Egypt after three days. Hardening the heart of Pharaoh resulted not only in Pharaoh and the Egyptians receiving their just deserts because they had gone far beyond the call of duty in oppressing the Jewish people, but also brought about the total liberation of the Jewish people. Had Pharaoh acceded to Moses’ request to worship in the wilderness for three days, the Jewish people might all still be slaves in Egypt!!

This subtle but important observation was brought to my attention in a brilliant essay by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik entitled Kol Dodi Dofek, The Voice of My Beloved Knocks (1956). While noting that Pharaoh’s hardened heart led to the full liberation of the Jewish people, Rabbi Soloveitchik draws an important parallel to 1948 and Israel’s battle for independence. Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that had the Arab states accepted the original partition plan for Palestine, Israel would have been a miniscule-sized state. But because G-d hardened the hearts of the Arab leaders, and six Arab armies attacked Israel after Ben-Gurion declared the state’s independence, Israel’s military victory resulted in a threefold expansion of its borders.

Hardening one’s heart often has severe consequences. Many of us are familiar with the recent case of a world famous business woman/TV personality who refused to acknowledge that she had received inside information when trading securities, and instead of admitting her guilt and simply paying a fine, which she could well afford, wound up in jail for several months. It was the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban who quipped after the Geneva Peace Conference of December 1993 with Yasser Arafat and the Arab representatives, that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” I still find it rather stunning that when, in 2002, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat 95-99% of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as a good portion of Jerusalem, Arafat responded by declaring an intifada. I shudder to think of Jerusalem returning to a divided status. But G-d hardened Arafat’s heart, and in a message to the Jewish people the Al-mighty said, I give you one more opportunity to show that you love the land of Israel and Jerusalem more than the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, hardening of one’s heart works both ways. If the Jewish people persist in their stiffnecked ways, refusing to acknowledge that we live in special times, refusing to acknowledge the centrality of Israel, refusing to acknowledge the importance of Aliyah, then we may also wind up beating our breasts, or beating ourselves up for not responding to G-d’s overtures.

The Jews have always been known as a “stiffnecked” people. They should not become known as a “hardhearted” people. We need to open our hearts, accept the Al-mighty’s overtures and acknowledge what He desires of us.

May you be blessed.