Parshat Va’era: The Hardening of Pharoh’s Heart
Students read and analyze four different interpretations of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart troubles many commentators.
Some commentators address this theological problem by explaining that Pharaoh deserved to lose his free will (e.g. Ramban). Others answer by explaining the text in a literal manner (e.g. Sforno), that the term “hardening of the heart” does not denote a loss of free will.
In this lesson we will examine four different approaches to this problem. We will study the text that describes the Ten Plagues (i.e. Chapters 7:14-11), which covers most of Parshiot Va’era and Bo.
The student will be able to describe:
1. The The Ten Plagues
2. When Pharaoh hardened his own heart and when God intervened, according to four separate commentaries.
The student will be able to:
1. Examine and analyze Biblical text
2. Examine, analyze, and compare four separate commentaries.
The student will be able to appreciate:
1. The value of free will and how it affects our lives.
2. How Divine Providence works together with free will.
3. The concept of Shivim Panim LeTorah.
1. Before beginning the lesson you may want to discuss the meaning of the “heart” in Biblical parlance. Rarely does it actually refer to the bodily organ. Often it refers to the intellect while in other places it refers to a desire and temptation.
2. Trigger: Begin the lesson by “taking away” the free choice of some your students. You can force a student to leave their seat during the lesson and then “punish” the student for doing do. You can then discuss with the class whether it was fair for you to punish the student. If you have a very good relationship with your class, you can do something more daring, or perhaps plan something with some students before the lesson.
3. Move onto the question whether it was fair of God to punish Pharaoh by hardening his heart. This is the focus of the worksheet.
4. Hand out worksheets and work through them with the students.
Suggested Answer for Question 1
This question helps the students get an overview of the text and also points out that for the first five plagues, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart.
Verses- Plague Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- 7:14 Dam Blood Pharaoh
- 8:11 Tsefardea Frogs Pharaoh
- 8:15 Kinim Lice Pharaoh
- 8:28 Arov Insects Pharaoh
- 9:7 Dever Pestilence Pharaoh
- 9:12 Shechin Boils God
- 9:34-35 Barad Hailstones Pharaoh
- 10:1-:20 Arbeh Locusts God
- 10:27 Choshech Darkness God
- 11:10 Bechorot First-Born God
Suggested Answer for Question Two
a) God only begins hardening Pharaoh’s heart starting from the sixth plague, and then not for every subsequent plague.
b) The text implies that had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh would have released Israel immediately after the plague of boils. However, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Israel remained in bondage in Egypt.
Suggested Answer for Question Three
It may be necessary for the teacher to explain the word “theological”. While this issue does not present any textual problems, the concept does raise a theological problem. Judaism believes that God is just. If that is the case, how is it possible for God to continue punishing Pharaoh and his people for the continued enslavement, when if it were up to them, Israel would be free? Furthermore, the possibility of doing teshuva (repentance) is a major axiom of Judaism, is it fair for Pharaoh to be deprived of this right?
Suggested Answer for Question Four
Only one of those sources (10:1) actually brings a reason for God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The teacher may want to direct the students immediately to that source, or may prefer for the students to sift through them until they find the correct source.
The source says: “I have made him and his advisors stubborn, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them and so that you will be able to tell your children and your grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians, how I performed signs amongst them, so that you will know that I am God.”
This source suggests that hardening Pharaoh’s heart gave God an excuse to continue to do miracles (i.e. plagues), so that the Jewish people will know that God is God. This answer may satisfy many students. The Egyptians are not being punished for any crime, but are merely a tool for spreading the word of God. Others may feel that this answer is even more troubling than the original question; for if God is a fair God, than surely He can find another way to prove Himself to the people, without harming the innocent.
It may be worth asking the students for a show of hands to see who favors or dislikes this answer and to ask them to defend their points of view.
The commentaries clearly found this problematic and felt that it needed clarification.
Their different approaches are outlined below:
Suggested answer for Question Five
a) Rashi agrees that Pharaoh’s free will was taken away.
b) Even though Pharaoh would have released Israel, his teshuva would not have been a real teshuva. Therefore God feels it necessary to teach Israel the need for total compliance to His will. This He does by hardening Pharaoh’s heart and not letting him avoid true teshuva. Once again, some students may be satisfied with this approach, while others may feel that God is still not being one hundred per cent fair.
We will, therefore, move on the Ramban’s approach.
Before we do, it will be best to explain that we do not have to tie ourselves down to any of the commentaries’ approaches to the texts. If we dislike an interpretation, we do not have to accept it. Not accepting Rashi’s interpretation is not denying the validity of the Torah. Indeed this may be the ideal juncture to discuss the concept of “Shivim Panim LeTorah” (the seventy faces of the Torah) – that the Torah can be interpreted in a plethora of ways.
Suggested Answer for Question Six
a) God did take away Pharaoh’s free choice.
b) According to the Ramban a miscarriage of justice would have occurred had God not taken away Pharaoh’s free choice, as he would have gotten away relatively lightly for the excessive cruelties he had done in his lifetime. In order to ensure that Pharaoh received the punishment he deserved, God took away his free choice, enabling Him to penalize him adequately.
The Ramban also seems to suggest that by turning his back on the possibility of teshuva so many times, Pharaoh lost his right to achieve teshuva.
Suggested Answer for Question Seven
a) Pharaoh’s free will was restored by God hardening his heart.
b) The plagues were taking their toll on Pharaoh. He was prepared to release the children of Israel, not because he wanted to, but because his pain tolerance threshold had reached its maximum. He had lost his free will.
However, by hardening his heart, God was restoring Pharaoh’s free will to him, by increasing his pain threshold. Only after hardening his heart could Pharaoh freely decide whether he wanted to release Israel. At that point, he chose not to release them.
Suggested Answer to Question Eight
I have not seen this approach written anywhere, but I first heard it mentioned by Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, who was then teaching at Yeshivat HaKotel.
a) Pharaoh took away his own free will.
b) Having started his policy of refusal, the events took control of Pharaoh and forced him to follow its path to the bitter end. Just as a drug addict does not acknowledge his addiction and believes that he can stop whenever he pleases, so too Pharaoh did not realize that he was no longer in control of the situation. Events spun out of control and Pharaoh was forced to continue to refuse Moshe’s demands.
Suggested Answer to Question Nine
The purpose of this question is to summarize all four approaches. The question can be completed after each commentator is studied or as a summary at the end of the class.
If it has not yet been discussed, the teacher should now open for discussion how “Free Will” affects our lives.
Commentator Who removed Pharaoh’s Free Will? Why?
- Rashi: God In order for Israel to see God’s greatness.
- Ramban: God In order for Pharaoh to receive a fitting punishment which he would have otherwise escaped.
- Sforno: Pharaoh’s free will was restored The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart gave him the ability to continue his fight if he so pleased.
- Others: Pharaoh By continuously fighting God, Pharaoh found the situation out of his control and he was forced to continue to disobey God. You may want to end the class by inviting students to add a fifth interpretation, thereby allowing them to become Torah commentators and developing the concept of “Shivim Panim LeTorah”.
6. To conclude, discuss how the free-will problem implied in the text affects your students on a daily basis. The most appropriate place to discuss this issue is after completing the worksheet, however, the students may raise the topic earlier. Posing either of the following questions to initiate the discussion:
a) How do the commentators’ opinions affect your concept of free will?
b) How much of our behavior is really predetermined/how much of it is the result of free will?