The Torah teaches us that time and again when Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, he refused. Each time the brothers demanded for their brothers and sisters to be freed, Pharaoh’s heart hardened. A new plague cursed Egypt when Pharaoh refused to comply. The plagues became successively worse, and yet Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go. With each request for the freedom of the Israelites, his heart hardened even more, eventually causing his own demise.
Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go to freedom and by then, he and Egypt were laid to waste. As the “g-d” of the Egyptians, he felt humiliated as his power was diminished by the real “G-d”. The G-d the Israelites believed in was all-powerful and knowing proving Pharaoh was not a g-d at all, just an ordinary human.
When the Israelites fled Egypt, the land was brought to its knees. Pharaoh’s once mighty army weakened. His lands were devastated by plagues. The crops were destroyed. The ultimate tragedy was the loss of the first-born. The Egyptians were glad to see the Israelites leave and take their plagues with them. Pharaoh lost the respect of his countrymen and led his country to ruin with his heartlessness and not being open to advice from others.
Each time Pharaoh was asked to free the Israelites, he said, “No!” But, why was he so stubborn? Did he not see another way to lead his country without slaves? Pharaohs are groomed to be leaders. Tutors and groomers educated him in the expectations of his future rule. Keeping the Israelites as slaves at any cost was an easy decision for Pharaoh. His free labor worked the fields and built his cities and monuments. Who told him having slaves was an essential to his economy? Could he not see that slavery was cruel and demeaning? From where did this one-sided perspective emanate? Was Pharaoh was taught to be narrow minded and heartless?
How does this biblical story relate to us today? Are we groomed and tutored from our youngest days to have a predisposition about people and things? As we grow up we learn to work hard, be successful, marry and have children. We learn from our parents to be a good person. Are we also taught that certain people are less worthy of attention and acknowledgement than ourselves? Pharaoh saw the Israelite slaves as less worthy than him. They were not deserving of the same freedoms Egyptians enjoyed.
Our environment, (i.e., family and friends, school, media, the workplace, our religious homes), help establish what we think. As we grow and mature, we may even learn to show prejudice and discrimination towards other people and places. At what point is it incumbent upon ourselves to reflect upon how we were raised? Should we reflect upon if our actions towards others are justified, and maybe hurtful?
When do we start to understand the predispositions we learned and determine whether we need a reboot in the direction and values we profess?
We do not want to be a Pharaoh, so hardened and determined to continue in our ways when in fact this line of thought may be detrimental to others, ourselves and our own inner-growth. We do not want to be a Pharaoh who refuses to listen to others and be open-minded to new ways of thinking.
We must stop to questions the values that guide us. We must ask ourselves if there is a better, kinder, more tolerant way to live, to treat others, to behave. Introspection serves to help us question our ideas and actions. Introspection and self-questioning make us grow.
What is the significance of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? The Torah says G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time he refused free the Israelites. Did G-d harden Pharaoh’s heart to show the world his mighty powers with the hope that no one else would test him? If so, it was a failure. Jews have been persecuted throughout history. Knowing G-d was on our side did not stop enemies from trying to exterminate us.
The plagues did not only affect the Egyptians. As Pharaoh became angrier, life became harder for the Israelites. Why did G-d allow this to happen? He was punishing his people as well as the Egyptians. This teaches us that sometimes using a strong arm is not the answer as others will be hurt.
G-d convinced Moses to overcome his predisposition that he was not able to confront Pharaoh. Why would Moses’ words not work on Pharaoh? The plea to set the Israelites free fell on deaf ears as
Pharaoh would not listen to reason and so he was ruined.
What does that mean to us today? The burning question confronting us is do we ever harden our hearts to others, as did Pharaoh to the Israelites? Every time we look the other way when people ask for our help, we reject their concerns, our heart is hardened and their situation may become worse. Year after year, as we look the other way, will our hearts harden to the point that one day we will not be able soften it and reverse course? Why do we look away from helping others? Now is the time you to look inside at yourself and answer this question.
Can we stop this hardening of our hearts and be more responsive to others? Pharaoh saw each plague become more and more severe and harmful to Egypt, yet he stubbornly remained resistant. Can we stop being so blind to others as did Pharaoh to the Israelites?
When will we stop to see if the path we are on will cause our heart to harden? When it is time to change the path we have undertaken? The answer lies within each of us. Do you want to “see” others, their darkness and their plight, or continue to ignore them and harden your heart to the needs of others? Will the hardening of our hearts eventually lead us to a position like Pharaoh, devastating our future? Time will tell about humanity and our future if we continue to allow our combined hearts to harden. The Jewish people have always been in the forefront of healing the world. In this New Year, I hope we will continue on that path as we begin anew.