Torah for the Times

Friday, January 27 , 2012 - 3 Shevat, 5772

Torah Reading: Bo (Exodus 10:1 - 13:16)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:48 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:51 PM

Pharaoh the Innocent?

Hardened Hearts

One of the most frequently asked questions by students of the Torah concerns the way G‑d dealt with Pharaoh. G‑d told Moses that He planned on hardening Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh would refuse to let the Jews go, yet G‑d told Moses to warn Pharaoh before each plague. This prompts the obvious question: why would G‑d punish Pharaoh for not letting the Jews leave when it was G‑d Himself who did not allow him to have a change of heart? And this leads to a follow-up question: why did G‑d tell Moses to warn Pharaoh? Why was a warning necessary if He knew that Pharaoh would not heed his warning?

Rambam answers that the hardening of his heart was Pharaoh’s own doing. When a person desensitizes himself through repeated violations of G‑d’s will he or she will reach a point of no return. According to the Rambam, that hardening process is the punishment for transgressing. But the second question still remains. Why then did Moses have to warn him if he knew that Pharaoh was incapable of having a change of heart? Rambam addresses this question and answers that this itself is the lesson that there are certain people whose wickedness is so profound that they cannot help themselves anymore.

G‑d Given Obstacles?

The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos volume 6, p. 67), after establishing that Rashi concurs with Rambam’s approach of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, proceeds to qualify this approach. While it is true that the sins Pharaoh committed were creating the greatest impediments to his free choice and that G‑d’s hardening of his heart was the most formidable obstacle one could ever place before a human being, Pharaoh still had the ability to break out of the shackles of his hardened heart. Free choice is never denied anyone. Even the apostate Rabbi known as Acher, who heard a heavenly voice declaring that he was beyond the point of returning to G‑d, was able to overcome that obstacle. True, he would need to employ much more effort than anyone else might expend in overcoming those obstacles, but it was not impossible.

The lesson from this approach is powerful. No matter how far we think we have become submerged in exile and its numbing effects on our spiritual lives, we can break out of it. Consider these facts: Pharaoh lived before the Torah was given with its powerful Divine energy; did not possess a G‑dly soul; was a tyrant; was the leader of the most morally depraved nation on earth; committed repeated atrocities in the way he enslaved and tortured the Jewish people, and, added to all of these negative character traits of Pharaoh, G‑d Himself hardened his heart. Yet even after all these things, he nevertheless still had the ability to change. How much more so, we, the Jewish people, have that capacity to overcome all obstacles hindering us. We have a Divine soul. We have received the Torah at Mount Sinai at which time G‑d said to each and every one of us, “I am G‑d your G‑d,” in the singular, to indicate that G‑d is the life-force and the essence of each individual. And even if we might think of ourselves as sinners, we must remember that the Talmud teaches that, “even the sinners of Israel are filled with Mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”

We have thousands of years of cumulative holiness which was generated by our forbears and has left an indelible mark on the Jewish and world landscape. And we are now living in the dawn of the Messianic Age, where some of that light can already be seen on the horizon. Certainly all the formidable obstacles, both man made and the one’s planted by G‑d, are not sufficient to prevent us from breaking out of the shackles of our exile mentality so as to become receptive to the energies of Redemption.

Change for the Right Reason

Ramban, Nachmanides, has another approach to the two questions as to why Pharaoh was punished and why a warning was necessary if G‑d had already hardened his heart. G‑d wanted Pharaoh to have a change of heart, but he wanted him to have that change of heart not because of the fear of the pain he endured and the prospects of being subjected to even more punishment. Rather, G‑d wished that his change of heart should be induced by his realization that there is one, all-powerful G‑d. Even an animal will recoil in fear from the threat of punishment and behave as its master wants, but it has no appreciation for the master’s superior intellect. Thus, G‑d hardened his heart in order to teach him that his change of heart inspired by his fear of more suffering was not going to succeed. Only if he changed his entire way of thinking, if he would recognize the plagues as “signs” that there is a Higher force—then the plague would not have to happen.

Be Part of the Solution

The lesson we can derive from this is that in this day and age we have witnessed countless miracles. We have seen tremendous suffering and tragedy and also phenomenal miracles from the Six Day War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events should inspire us to recognize their true Source. We must see the hand of G‑d in all that is happening today as a means of breaking out of our internal exile. If Pharaoh would have had a change of heart and if he would have fully recognized G‑d’s power, he would have been part of the solution to the Egyptian exile and shared in the glory of the Exodus. Instead he chose the path of having the Exodus occur in spite of him and not because of him.

Similarly we have the choice of failing to see the “signs” and what they represent, or we can recognize G‑d’s hand in everything and read the signs carefully and so become the very forces of liberation. Either way the Redemption will happen. The only question is: will it happen in spite of us or because and through us?

Respond to the Messages

A third approach, offered by Seforno, is that if Pharaoh would have surrendered to G‑d’s will immediately, his recognition of G‑d’s power would have been minimal. G‑d’s hardening of his heart guaranteed there would be more plagues and wonders. These plagues might finally enable him to develop a more sophisticated appreciation for G‑d. G‑d did not want to deny Pharaoh the opportunity to do Teshuvah; He wanted him to grow spiritually. But in the end, Pharaoh neither changed nor grew and thus his punishment was fully deserved. The lesson from this approach for our day and age is that every moment of exile is painful. Even when we enjoy the comforts of modern life the fact that there is still pain and suffering in the world should be intolerable to every sensitive human being. The fact that G‑d’s presence is not felt by everyone and that evil is still rampant is unacceptable to us. The more spiritually sensitive among us are therefore constantly clamoring for Moshiach and the final Redemption.

Nevertheless every moment that we endure this exile, is intended for us to increase in our awareness of G‑d and to see His hand in all that happens. Obviously we are not justifying the continuation of the exile nor are we giving G‑d an “excuse” to prolong the agony. We do not understand why all of this is necessary, but we do know what G‑d wants us to do and how to respond to exile. We must humbly protest the continuation of the exile, as we do continually in our daily prayers, even as we simultaneously search for and respond to the messages that are being conveyed by the events that surround us. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught us that we must learn a lesson from everything we hear or see. We certainly have to learn lessons and grow from the events that we are living through in these last moments of exile, as we stand on the threshold of Redemption.

Ten Stiff-Necked People

A fourth approach taken by some commentators is that, in truth, Pharaoh’s free choice was not taken away from him. Pharaoh was endowed by G‑d with the trait of stubbornness. Stubbornness, like most other human traits, is neither good nor bad. It depends on the way it is applied. Pharaoh could have used his stubbornness to insist on letting the Jews go despite all the arguments, economic and otherwise, to keep them enslaved. Pharaoh made the wrong choice and his obstinacy kept the Jews enslaved despite all the plagues that he endured.The lesson for our day and age is that we are a “stiff necked people.” We can use this for the right reason. No matter how long it has taken for Moshiach to come, we don’t give up praying, pleading, and demanding that G‑d make good on His promise.

In the Rebbe’s historic message of the 28th of Nissan 5751 (1991), the Rebbe asked for “ten stiff necked” individuals who will not rest until they accomplish the goal of bringing the final Redemption. Let us attempt to be counted among that minyan that will change the world forever.

Moshiach Matters

“The life of the Previous Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn) can be divided into 3 stages. The first is when he began spreading Chassidus during the lifetime of his father, Rebbe Sholom Dovber, the second is during his reign as Rebbe when he spread Chassidus throughout the world, including bringing Torah to America. The third stage is after 1950 (the years of the Rebbe’s leadership), when his work intensified greatly, to the point that the world has become absolutely ready for the arrival of Moshiach.” (The Rebbe, Parshas VaEra, 1992)

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