Shabbat candles: 4:27 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 6:2-9:35
Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Havdalah: 5:28 p.m.
One of the more difficult theological problems raised in the book of Exodus is God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart [Exodus 9:12]. To be sure, during the first five plagues, it was Pharaoh himself who was responsible for his stubborn cruelty, hardening his own heart. However, now that we have come to the sixth plague, of boils, how can we blame Pharaoh if it was God who prevented him from freeing the slaves? How can it be that God prevented Pharaoh from hearkening to God? Indeed, the Torah notes God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart four more times, at the plagues of hail [Ex. 10:1], locusts [Ex. 10:20], darkness [Ex. 10:27], and the death of the first-born [Ex. 11:10].
Sforno, in a most creative interpretation, does not believe that God prevented Pharaoh from repenting: “Had Pharaoh wished to submit himself to the Divine Will, may He be blessed, and to return to Him in complete repentance, there would have been nothing to serve as a deterrent. Behold, when God, may He be blessed, says, ‘I shall harden the heart of Pharaoh,’ it merely means that [Pharaoh] will be strengthened by the suffering of the plagues, and not release the Hebrews because of his fear of the plagues…”
Sforno is almost turning the verse on its head by insisting that, in hardening Pharaoh’s heart from “running scared” and freeing the Hebrews, He was only enhancing Pharaoh’s freedom to make moral decisions. God was removing the malaise and mayhem being wrought upon Egyptian society by the plagues from becoming the cardinal reason for Pharaoh’s sending the Hebrews out, which would have made the decision not a matter of morality but political expediency. On the basis of this commentary, the entire logic of the plagues becomes much clearer.
During the second plague, of frogs, Moses explains that the reason for the horrific discomfiture, the turn-around of the Nile from being a life-giving god of Egypt into becoming a macabre and ridiculous repository of blood and frogs, is “in order that you may know that there is none like the Lord [YHVH] our God” [Ex. 8:6]; and the fourth plague, swarms of insects, is “in order that you know that I am the Lord [YHVH] in the midst of the land” [Ex. 8:18]. In the beginning of Va’era, God’s opening words are: “I am the Lord YHVH; I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, powerful God of omnipotence, but with My name YHVH I did not make Myself known to them. Therefore say to the Israelites: I am YHVH; I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt…” [Ex 6:2,3,6].
What is in a name? It is the most understandable partial definition of a being whose very essence insists that He will ultimately remain incomprehensible to mortal humans. The Hebrew letters (YHVH), in accordance with their vocalization, spell out the very “He will effectuate.” Given the content, it means that He (God) will bring about redemption — freedom for the Israelites and ultimately freedom and redemption for all humanity. It is in the future tense because God acts in history [”I will be who I will be”] and it is open-ended, because the God of history acts in concert with Israel and the nations, and is thereby “limited” by their actions or lack thereof.
Most important of all, the root noun HVH, as in ahavah, means love, as our Talmudic Sages understood when they defined this particular ineffable name of God (the Tetragrammaton) as referring to the God of love and compassion, the midat ha’rahamim [Ex: 34:6, Rashi ad loc.]. Therefore the God who loves humanity will turn His back, as it were, upon those who exploit, enslave and murder innocent human beings.
This is the lesson that God wanted to teach Pharaoh, totalitarian ruler of the most powerful nation at that time. God, YHVH, the unique Creator and owner of all of creation who loves His creation, will act in history and in the world to free all slaves and redeem all who are oppressed. Hence, it was crucial that God harden Pharaoh’s heart to free him from succumbing to pressure from the plagues; Pharaoh had to free the Israelites only because he recognized the ultimate authority of the one God whose universal laws of freedom must govern the world if there is to remain a world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.