Hardened Hearts

January 05, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Of all the interpretive riddles that have perplexed biblical commentators over the ages, none is more longstanding and insoluble than the matter of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. The scene is one we know well – if not from this week’s Torah reading, then from the Passover Seder – as Moses and Pharaoh lock horns over the fate of the enslaved Israelite nation. Plague after plague is sent by means of God’s outstretched arm, each one intended to force Pharaoh’s hand to set Israel free. Dramatic as the showdown may be, it is a story complicated by God’s ab initio declared intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3). If, after all, the point of the plagues is to force Pharaoh’s hand, then why, commentators over the ages have asked, would God incline Pharaoh to refuse to let Israel go? Why not just let the story of liberation play out without hardening his heart? It is a complication that only deepens with the arrival of the sixth plague, boils, as the text makes a subtle but significant change in language from Pharaoh “hardening his own heart,” to God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” As the thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Ramban succinctly asks: “If God hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart, then what was his crime?” Philosophically speaking, we are left to square the circle of a God who would harden a person’s disposition with Judaism’s axiomatic belief in the principle of human free will.

Throughout the ages, every Jewish biblical commentator has cut his or her teeth on this question. The tenth-century Saadia Gaon downplays the problem with the suggestion that the language of “hardening hearts” is a statement of Pharaoh’s resolve to defy God. Similarly, the twentieth-century Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto relates that neither the expression itself, nor the shift from the passive to the active is of philosophical significance; it is an expression meant simply to signal that Pharaoh dug in his proverbial heels. The thirteenth-century Hizkuni and the sixteenth-century Sforno skirt the issue by pointing out that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened in order that he should suffer all the plagues, while the aforementioned Ramban relates that God declared that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened so that Moses would not become disheartened when faced with Pharaoh’s obduracy. My personal favorite, as related by both Maimonides and the famed psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, is that while initially Pharaoh may have hardened his heart by his own free will, the more he dug in, the less he could change. The language of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not meant to be taken literally, but figuratively. As we all know from our own lives (and government shutdowns), the more we harden our positions, the more intractable we become, and the more unlikely it becomes that change will occur.

This morning I want to build on these interpretive traditions, not so much by saying anything new, but by placing the question of Pharaoh’s hardened heart in the context of the broader Exodus narrative – a story which began last week and will reach its denouement in two weeks with the Israelites’ crossing of the sea. In other words, I want to suggest that in order to untangle this particular riddle, we have to look at the bigger picture, the broader arc of these chapters, and ask: What is this story really about? What is at the nub of the Exodus story? No question, it is a story about liberation, a people redeemed from slavery. No doubt, it is a story about Moses and his development as a leader. No question, it is a story about God remembering the covenant with Israel and Israel affirming their faith in God. The Exodus narrative is about all these things and so much more. But this morning, I want to suggest that at its core, the Exodus story is about the liberation of the human condition, about the ability of human beings to exercise their God-given free will, about our ability or inability to actualize our will, and why it is that ability that makes us not just human, but worthy of the label “created in God’s image.”

Consider how our story begins. An Israelite nation subjugated by their Egyptian oppressors. The effects of hundreds of years of ruthlessly imposed servitude were not just physical, but also mental. Unable to control their time, their choices, or their destiny, the Israelites were deprived of their very humanity. And yet before the first chapter of Exodus is even complete, we are introduced to Shifra and Puah, who, in their modest position as Hebrew midwives, perform an extraordinary act of civil disobedience by ignoring Pharaoh’s edict to kill the Hebrew babies. On a narrative level, their noncompliance explains how Moses was able to survive. On a more substantive level, their actions establish the fundamental tension of the chapter and perhaps the entire story. Like a Shakespearean drama in which the central tension is laid out in a small vignette in the opening act, so too here the Author is saying: “Remember, even in the embittered darkness of slavery, even under the thumb of Pharaoh’s oppression, the power to choose exists and persists.” Not even Pharaoh and all his taskmasters could snuff out the light that makes human beings human.

This tension takes on a new form in the next chapter with the introduction of Moses. Raised in a house of privilege, Moses goes out one day and encounters an Egyptian beating one of his Israelite kinsmen. Moses looks this way and that, the text relates, and seeing no man, he strikes down the Egyptian. Subsequent commentators explain that it was not the fact that Moses didn’t see any man that prompted him to take action; after all, in the very next verse it becomes clear that a whole lot of people saw exactly what he did. What Moses witnessed (with apologies for the gendered language), was that nobody was “manning up.” Perhaps out of fear of Pharaoh, perhaps because in Pharaoh’s Egypt evil had been normalized to the point that one could just shrug one’s shoulders and turn away, every Israelite and every Egyptian had been rendered a bystander. The incident is significant because it is Moses’s origin story. But its significance, like that of Shifra and Puah, like that of Moses driving off the offending shepherds in the scene to come, is that it highlights a core aspect of the human condition, namely, that one always has a choice of how to behave. The ability to differentiate between right and wrong and our willingness to make choices accordingly, that is what makes us human.

From our initial introduction to Moses and into this week’s Torah reading, it is this question that drives the narrative. Even though Moses has distinguished himself as a man of action, he still resists the call to leadership. Not once, not twice, but no fewer than five times, Moses balks, demurs, and refuses God’s charge to lead. “Who am I to lead them?” “Who shall I say sent me?” “I am slow to speak.” “What if they don’t listen to me?” The excuses are as varied as they are numerous, and they all point to the same question: Will Moses do the right thing? Will he step up for his brethren on a national scale as he did for his single Israelite brother? This is why God’s response to Moses is so important: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11) It is almost as if – if not exactly as if – God is telling Moses: “Don’t tell me what human beings are or are not capable of! I created you; I endowed you and all of humanity with those capabilities! The question is not whether or not you are capable of self-actualizing – you are. You are created in the divine image. The only question is whether you will or won’t choose to take that step!

It is this wrestling match that takes place within Moses’s soul that is the challenge within the soul of the Israelite nation. Yes, Moses sought to free Israel from servitude, but it was not just physical bondage from which they needed to be liberated. The added value that Moses brought to the Israelites was that he convinced them that their present reality was a far cry from their God-given potential. It was Moses who instructed the Israelites: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but you yourselves can free your mind.” The central drama of this week’s parashah and next week’s is not at what point Pharaoh will let Israel go. The central drama is the question of at what point Israel will believe in God and themselves to the point that they know that it is time to go, that they know that they were not put on this earth to serve Pharaoh but to serve God, that they know that the mark of our humanity is our ability to exercise our free will, to make choices, and to live with the responsibility and blessings that come with that capability.

Which is where, I believe, the matter of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart comes into play. Unlike those interpreters who choose to soften the contradiction by offering an elegant “out,” I am inclined to believe that God is doing exactly what God says God is doing. This showdown is not just about the physical shackles of slavery. This showdown is between a Pharaoh who would deprive human beings of their right to exercise their free will, and a God who has created humanity for the very purpose of exercising their free will. If I were to diagram this story on a graph, it would have two lines – one for Pharaoh and one for Israel – curving in opposite directions. With every successive chapter, the Israelites increase in their ability to exercise free will. With every successive chapter, Pharaoh’s ability to exercise free will is diminished. I believe God is making a very direct and very punitive judgement upon Pharaoh regarding his ability to do what he wants to do. “You, Pharaoh, who would make yourself a God by making the Israelites less than human, I will show you who is God by making you less than human.” The Nile, the locusts, the death of the Egyptian first-born – God knew how to hit Pharaoh where it hurt. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was the coup de grace, the ultimate divine assertion, by making Pharaoh unable to assert anything – until of course, it was too late.

Just a few days ago, many members of Park Avenue Synagogue visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. The first thing you encounter, even before entering the exhibit itself, is the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations – trees planted in honor of non-Jews who helped save Jews during the horrors of the Shoah. I never fully understood why Yad Vashem would give such prominence to what was, relatively speaking, a de minimis number of lives saved by righteous gentiles. Is it a shout-out to non-Jewish museum visitors? Or perhaps a way to provide a Hollywood silver lining for an otherwise horrific story? I don’t know, but this year it struck me that the Garden of Righteous Gentiles teaches the same message as the first chapters of Exodus, namely, that one always has a choice. One walks through the Garden of the Righteous on the way to the museum as a preemptive correction to the falsehood that the perpetrators of the Shoah, or anyone for that matter, lacked the ability to make moral distinctions and to make choices based on those distinctions. Like the famous picture of that single dock worker in a sea of raised arms who refused to salute the Nazi regime, like the midwives who performed acts of civil disobedience at their own peril, like Moses who finally found the wherewithal to act on behalf of his people, we always, even in the darkest hours, have the choice of how to behave.

Friends, our lives, gratefully, are not playing out against the backdrop of  Egyptian servitude or the Shoah. For the most part, the choices we make are more modest; the stakes, thank God, are not life and death. And yet, no different than any generation before, we are all faced with daily choices as individuals, as families, and as citizens. And like every generation that has come before, we do not lack for moral alibis, all the reasons why we cannot, should not, or will not do the right thing. Our hearts can be hardened no different than that of Pharaoh. Like Moses at the burning bush, we too must answer whether we are willing to differentiate right from wrong, call out injustice when we see it, muster the requisite courage to stand up for what is right, and demonstrate the resolve to see our choices through even if, and especially if, the going gets tough. As the rabbis taught so long ago: “In a place where there are no decent people, endeavor to be one.” (Pirkei Avot 2:6). Our ability to exercise our own free will is not just the measure of our humanity; it is the very thing that makes life worth living.