Below is the sermon that I delivered at The Reform Temple of Rockland on 1/20/23 on Parshat Va’Eira:

“But the Eternal stiffened the heart of Pharoah, and he would not heed them.”  Parshat Va’Eira brings up for me year after year the question of free-will.  Pharoah was a human – he had his own mind.  Why did G-d “stiffen” his heart?  Did G-d take away Pharoah’s volition to prove a point?? Did G-d inflict more suffering than necessary on all of Egypt just to “show G-d’s signs and wonders”?  This makes me seriously uncomfortable.  And judging by many years of Taste of Torah, it makes a lot of other people uneasy as well.  But maybe there is some insight here that we haven’t noticed.  Let’s look at all the times that Pharoah’s heart stiffens in this parshah.

  1.  Exodus 7:12-13 “each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods. Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as G-d had said.”
  2. Exodus 7:21-22 after the Nile was turned to blood, we read “and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. But when the Egyptian magician-priests did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them—as G-d had spoken.
  3. After the plague of the frogs had been removed Exodus 8:11 “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as G-d had spoken.”
  4. After the lice Exodus 8:15 “But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as G-d had spoken.”
  5. After swarms of insects Ex. 8:28 “But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.”
  6. After livestock disease that affected only Egyptian livestock Ex9:27 “yet Pharaoh remained stubborn, and he would not let the people go.”

Time after time, plague after awful plague, it isn’t G-d who hardens Pharoah’s heart, but Pharoah himself.  He is stubborn and set in his ways.  It starts simple – with a trick that his magicians can replicate.  A rod turns into a snake.  Great trick.  Harms nobody.  His people can do it too.  His pride swells.  He’s not going to give in to this Moses guy.  But things escalate quickly.  Water turned to blood means that there is no water for the people, the land or the animals.  Frogs, lice, insects, pestilence.  These aren’t mere tricks, and you can imagine Pharoah becoming angrier and more set in his ways.     But with the next plague something new happens.  

After the plague of boils took down everyone, even the priests, we read in Ex 9:11-12 “The magician-priests were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magician-priests as well as all the other Egyptians. But G-d stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as G-d had told Moses.”

The plagues have gotten personal.  People themselves are afflicted.  People Pharoah knows and trusts.  Pharoah must be under a tremendous amount of pressure to just give in already.  But G-d made him stick to it.  Why would G-d remove his free-will in this moment when he was maybe about to finally give in?

Maimonides wrote in Hilchot Teshuvah that the reason G-d hardened Pharoah’s heart at this point was to punish him for the first five times when Pharoah’s own cruelty blinded him to the plight of both his people and ours.  Maimonides says, “judgment obligated that he be prevented from repenting so that he would suffer retribution.”  Ouch.  Cruel.  Maybe deserved but shouldn’t one be allowed to change ones ways without G-d’s interference?

Another point of view is in Sefer Ha-Ikkarim Rabbi Yosef Albo posites the opposite point of view.  According to Albo, Pharoah was only going to give in because of pressure, and not because of change or because of his own volition.  G-d hardened Pharoah’s heart in order to RETURN his free-will – to remove the stress of the pressure from others to give in and bring Pharoah back to his normal state!  The, “owing to his wicked attitude, when in a state of freedom” he would look for causes of excuses to attribute the plagues to in order to make them seem natural or accidental and not divine – thus ignorable.  

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l shared another viewpoint.  Although philosophers and scientists often view the concept of “free will” as an absolute, Rabbi Sacks writes that this is not how it works in real life.  

“Consider addiction,” he writes. “The first few times someone gambles or drinks alcohol or takes drugs, they may do so freely, knowing the risks but ignoring them. Time goes on and their dependency increases until the craving is so intense that they are almost powerless to resist it. At a certain point they … no longer have the ability to stop without external support.”  They have no free-will over their choices.

Addiction is only one of many types of examples he gives.  Lies lead to more lies to cover up the original lie.  Habits lead to more habits.  As he writes, “We lose our freedom gradually, often without noticing it.”  In the case of Pharoah’s story – it all starts with a magic trick – turning a rod into a snake–  but somehow almost inexplicably it leads to plague, darkness, and death.  Whether the root cause is habit or hubris, the result is the same.  Pharoah, for whatever reason, cannot give in, cannot change.  After all, Pharoah represents Mitzrayim – a land whose very name means narrowness.

Enslaving others, Pharoah himself becomes enslaved – a prisoner of his values and his land, he lost the ability to see the suffering even of his own people.

We are our own Pharoahs.  We create bad habits and routines from small things and whether through compulsion, coercion, impulsion or mere inclination – are hearts are hardened to change.  This is why the New Year’s resolutions of January rarely survive until March.  But our tradition demands, “Let My People Go.”  This week, may we find the places where we are narrow and constricted – where our hearts are hardened to the needs of others and to the changes that we know we need to make for our own health and for the health of our society; and may we seek the freedom to change ourselves and our worlds – as is our birthright.