I went to a baby naming ceremony last Shabbos. I went to a congregation in the Tampa area for the first time. The people were pleasant and warm, but the service structure is not my cup of tea – which is not intended to be a negative critique. Simply stated, there are many expressions that the Synagogue service seems to take, and each is designed to provide a worship experience catered to people who like that style. I went because two friends of mine had a baby girl, Naomi who, like my youngest daughter Hope, is a lovely girl with Down Syndrome. I went, not only to support them at the beginning of their journey with Naomi, but I also consider them dear friends. Two of my daughters, Savannah and Chavah, and I were happy to be there for the parents, and when Hope met Naomi, she fell in love.
I bring this up because Naomi’s father is a proponent for predestination and he uses the Exodus story as one of his proofs. In our lively conversations, he would use it because the texts says G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he used this to support his belief. Since I do not see the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as evidence for predestination, I would like to explain why.
I have taken the text of the Exodus and pulled every reference to hardening of the heart to see what may be happening. There are three words to describe what is happening to Pharaoh’s heart: chazak, kabed, and kashah.
- Chazak – strengthen
- Kabed – make heavy
- Kashah – make fierce
|Words to Describe the Heart|
|I shall strengthen (chazak) his heart 4:21|
|I will make His heart cruel or fierce (kashah) 7:3|
|Pharaoh’s heart strengthened (chazak) 7:13|
|(1) “The heart of Pharaoh is heavy (kabed)” 7:14|
|(1) His heart was strong (chazak) 7:22|
|(2) He made his heart heavy (kabed) 8:11|
|(3) His heart was strong (chazak) 8:15|
|(4) He made his heart heavy (kabed) 8:28|
|(5) His heart was heavy (kabed) 9:7|
|(6) Hashem made his heart strong (chazak) 9:12|
|(7) Pharaoh and his servants made their hearts heavy (kabed) 9:34; Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened (chazak) 9:35|
|(8) Hashem made Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his servants heavy (kabed) 10:1|
|(8) Hashem strengthened (chazak) his heart 10:20|
|(9) Hashem strengthened (chazak) his heart 10:27|
|(10) Hashem strengthened (chazak) his heart 11:10|
|(11) “I shall strengthened (chazak) his heart” 14:4|
|Hashem strengthened (chazak) his heart 14:8|
|Hashem is about to strengthened (chazak) the hearts of the Egyptians 14:17|
As early as the fourth chapter, in his commentary on the Torah, the Sforno stated that Pharaoh would be unable to withstand the plagues and this would force him to send out the People. Hashem wanted Pharaoh to send away the people out of submission to G-d and because of a contrite heart, not because he had no choice due to the severity of his suffering. To further explain this reasoning, Sforno provides a partial quote, “As I live, says the L-rd Hashem, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Sforno sees Hashem’s strengthening as a way for Him to help prop up Pharaoh’s resolve in order to allow him to get to a point of repentance under the power of his own volition.
It is the sixth plague, the severity of the boils was so bad, G-d aided Pharaoh to continue to persevere against the plagues. Until his plague, nothing affected the bone and flesh of the Egyptians until the boils (the lice and flies were external inconveniences and probably affected them psychologically), the plague of boils, on the other hand, affected every aspect of their lives and there was no way to protect or isolate themselves from the misery.
This comment, I believe, stems from the Talmud, which says, In the path a man wishes to follow, he is led, which is based upon, “Thus says Hashem, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am Hashem your G-d, who teaches you for your profit, who leads you in the way you should go.” Isaiah is a positive verse, meaning that if you are seeking to be obedient to Hashem, he will guide your path, Masechet Makkos [above] appears to be a bit more neutral; even though G-d has a tendency to show a man the right path, G-d will actually lead a man down the path chosen by the man. Therefore, in keeping with this principle, G-d aids Pharaoh in pursuing his heart’s desire: Pharaoh wants to keep the People as slave labor.
Once the nine plagues are over, Pharaoh ceases to be a central figure in the story. Instead, he is relegated to a backseat as G-d and the children of Israel now become the focus. G-d has been proven master of all, and the last plague, the Makat Bechorot, is a direct attack on Egypt on many fronts.
- Egyptian society was controlled by the firstborn. The firstborn inherited the lion’s share over those born after.
- Pharaoh, being the firstborn of a firstborn of a firstborn, etc., was considered a god in his own right because of this divine privilege. With the death of every firstborn of the Egyptians, one must wonder why Pharaoh did not die. However, the answer is quite clear, though many commentaries have suggested that Pharaoh was excluded from G-d’s edict, using, “but in the very deed for this cause, I have made you to stand” as a support text.
- The Rabbinic idea called midah keneged midah. For throwing the sons of the children of Israel into the Nile, Pharaoh and all of Egypt lost their firstborn sons in the tenth plague. Some examples of midah keneged midah can be found here:
– Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
– Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.
– And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people: This tells that they hurried and rushed them to go out. For they said, ‘We are all dead men:’ They said, “This is not what Moshe decreed, Moshe said only the firstborn of Egypt will die.” They thought if a man had four or five children, only the oldest would die. They didn’t know their wives were guilty of adultery, and some of “his” children were actually fathered by different bachelors. The women transgressed secretly, yet G-d exposed them.
The last “plague,” the drowning of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and army, was the last strike against the stoniness or contrariness. It seems fitting, however, the last attempt to get to Pharaoh’s heart is answered by the phrase, “Stones are eroded by water,” for the waters of the Yam Suf eroded Pharaoh’s stony heart.
 First mention of distinction between Mitzriim [Egyptians] and Ivriim [Children of Israel] in the Makot [plagues]
 I appreciate the words of Rabbi Akiva who said, “All things are foreknown but freewill is given” m.Avos 3:19
 Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno
 see Sforno’s comments on Shemos 4:21. Sforno Commentary on the Torah, Translation and Explanatory Notes; Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz; Artscroll Mesorah Series; ISBN 986-0-89906-268-6
 Ezekiel 33:11
 Exodus 09:08-12
 b.Makkos 10b
 Isaiah 48:17
 death of the firstborn
 i.e., Mekilta Pisha 13:18-27
 Exodus 9:16
 measure for measure
 Exodus 1:21
 Galatians 6:7-8
 Exodus 22:22-24
 Exodus 12:33
 Exodus 12:33
 Exodus 11:5
 Mechilta Pisha 13:97-107
 Referring to the use of hafech in Exodus 14:5 in reference to Pharaoh’s and his people’s hearts
 Job 14:19