Par’oh Takes Himself to His Doom
Caricaturing Par’oh is the lazy way out. It lets us see him as acting in ways we never would, which makes him not worthy of our time. Except that the Torah found him worthy of its time, suggesting he bears a closer look.
Doing so, we find that two of his prominent flaws challenge most of us or those we know and love. He is arrogant, and refuses to (or cannot) change when necessary. Watching where that leads him can fortify us, we hope, in redoubling our efforts to avoid his errors, or even do the opposite, and reach great success.
The God Par’oh Could Not Accept
The first time they speak to Par’oh, Moshe and Aharon refer to Hashem with two different Names. In 5;1, they call Him אלקי ישראל, the God of Israel, in 5;3, אלקי העברים, God of the Hebrews. Ramban attributes the change to Par’oh’s inability to assimilate that first term. He knew of אלוקים, a generic or universal God, either because all sophisticated people did or because he knew Yosef’s story.
To accept the more direct Divine Providence indicated by the four letter Name, or the idea of an אלוקי ישראל, a universal God with a special connection to a particular people, was too much. Realizing they had gone too far, Moshe and Aharon adjusted their vocabulary, letting Par’oh hear it as their national god, a familiar idea.
Sforno thinks Par’oh rejected the idea of a Creator ex nihilo, a Creator of the universe from absolute nothingness. For all that many people believe in gods, or even one God, the claim that that God created everything, including what we call the laws of Nature (and therefore can abrogate or change those laws at will), has divided believing Jews from others (even putative monotheists) for millennia.
Both types of denial are present and prominent today, meaning that if prophets made the same claims Ramban and Sforno think Moshe and Aharon did, they might meet the same reaction. Once again, as it was then, so we could imagine it being now, easing our way to turning our retelling into a reliving.
Part of our human responsibility—true for the Jews in Egypt, true for Par’oh, true for us-- is recognizing Hashem as Hashem presents Himself, not insisting we can define or set limits on what Hashem can be. Par’oh could not believe in a God Who had a special connection with the Jewish people, or a Creator of something from nothing.
Look a bit, and you will see that today, too, many say, “The God I believe in would never…” setting rules and limits for God, shaping Hashem in their image.
Foreshadowing the Killing of the First-Born
In that same first conversation, 4;22, Moshe relays Hashem’s message that the Jews are His first-born, as it were; should Par’oh refuse to release them, Hashem will kill his first-born. Par’oh refuses to accept this, and the first-born eventually are killed. Once it happens, does Par’oh recall that he had been put on notice about this way back at the beginning of the process, that nothing in what was happening should shock him, since he’s been told about it before (and again before hail, according to Rashi)?
It seems likely that Par’oh did not or could not absorb Moshe’s explanation of the meaning of events coming his way. Watching him, we can wonder about whether we would do better, whether we are more able to see where Hashem is directing us, where challenges that come our way are punishment, or a call to grow in new directions.
We have it harder, because we don’t have a prophet telling us which events are directly orchestrated by Hashem or what they mean. Par’oh’s story suggests that’s not always what makes us refuse to see Hashem’s hand in events. Sometimes we reject the truth even when Moshe is telling it to us directly.
Easing Par’oh’s Path to Acceptance: The Role of a Prophet?
Rashi, 7;1, explains Hashem’s reference to Aharon’s being Moshe’s prophet or speaker as meaning he will take Moshe’s words, and ימליצנו ויטעימנו, roughly, “make them commendable and reasonable” in Par’oh’s ears.He is to shape Moshe’s words into a message Par’oh would be most likely to accept.
Empowering Aharon in this way implies an interest in helping Par’oh react the best way (similar to Sforno’s claim that the first nine plagues were spurs to repentance). Moshe heard Hashem’s messages in full; Par’oh heard Aharon’s more easily digested presentations (and still rejected them).
Rashi on Hashem’s Hardening Par’oh’s Heart
Rashi’s sense that Aharon’s job was to present the words more appealingly does not quite mesh with Hashem’s telling Moshe He will harden Par’oh’s heart. Rashi does not address the dichotomy, but three of his points about the hardening clarify his view.
In 7;3, Rashi understands Hashem to be telling Moshe that non-Jews never pay the kind of full attention necessary to penitence. Because of that, Hashem will harden Par’oh’s heart to let the plagues continue. Had Par’oh “surprised” Hashem with the required level of contrition, he might have been released from the plagues earlier.
Rashi’s second point is that Hashem punishes idolaters to educate Jews. I have seen those who understand this to mean Hashem uses other nations as a tool to teach the Jews a lesson, but I believe Rashi means that since Par’oh deserves all this and more, Hashem will harden his heart to make sure the Jews fully learn the desired lesson. Repentance might have avoided the punishment, but his deeds made it already deserved.
Finally, Rashi notes that the verse only credits Hashem with the hardening in the last five plagues. This fits with Rambam’s claim, Laws of Repentance6;3, that Par’oh’s resistance eventually lost him his free will.
For Rashi, Par’oh was not hardened to do anything he did not want nor did he suffer anything he did not previously deserve. He and the Egyptians could have repented as long as they did so sincerely and fully. What Hashem prevented was their paying lip service to yielding, without the internal conversion that had to go with it.
As Freewill Ebbs Away, Piling Up Bad Decisions
Rashi thinks Par’oh was not killed with the other first-born so he would witness the drama at the Sea. He does not explain why Hashem would want that, especially if he has lost his freewill.
One option is that others would be more impressed with the Splitting of the Sea if they knew Par’oh had been there. I prefer the idea that Hashem only hardened Par’oh’s heart in the one area of freeing the Jews before the plagues were done, or before he chased them to the Sea. In other areas, he might have had freewill, and might have used it to mitigate his evil.
The Moment of Freedom
In 10;28-29, Par’oh and Moshe have a heated exchange, the upshot of which is that Moshe says he will never again see Par’oh’s face. In 12;31-2, Par’oh begs Moshe to leave, which seems like they are speaking to each other face to face. Rashi limits Moshe’s original commitment to a guarantee that he would never again initiate a meeting. Here, Par’oh came running to him.
Ramban offers three other options: 1) Par’oh did not see Moshe and Aharon that night-- he ran to their house, cried out in the darkness for them to leave, and they never opened the door, 2) Par’oh sent a messenger, for all that the text speaks of him speaking to them, or 3) Moshe only meant he would never speak to Par’oh in his palace again.
Each differs on how much Par’oh surrendered. His desperately banging on their door, calling for them to leave without them even answering, evinces a more complete yielding. Especially if he has the calm to entrust the mission to a messenger, but even if he went himself but made sure to include his entourage, the second two options show him holding fast to a shred of his remaining dignity. Which would explain his next choices.
Ready to Be Fooled Into Trying Again
Sforno rejects the literal meaning of 13;17, that Hashem only didn’t take the Jews by way of the Philistines because of how they’d react to war. Since Mount Sinai is not on that route, and Hashem had already told Moshe the Jews would receive the Torah there, they had to get to Sinai. Sforno instead understands the verse to be saying that Hashem took the Jews into the desert, to lure Par’oh(and his people) to their destruction. Because as soon as he saw the Jews were lost, he would assume they were afraid of war and chase them, even after all the plagues he and his people had suffered.
We’ve already seen a similar idea in Rashi’s reading of Hashem telling Moshe to have the Jews camp in front of בעל צפון, Ba’al Tsefon,14;2, a ploy to mislead Par’oh (and the Egyptians) into thinking the Jews were vulnerable.
It’s one last opportunity to question ourselves and whether, when, and how we learn lessons we need. Do we resist or embrace them? When we resist, when do we give up? Once learned, how fragile are those lessons, how easily can they be unlearned?
Par’oh is a model of what we want to avoid.
Which leaves us only one day until Seder. My hope is that our review of how Hashem invites our participation in our redemption and how the major characters in the Exodus succeed and fail at taking advantage of those opportunities has readied us to experience the Seder fully, to relive the Exodus as fully as possible.
What we haven’t yet done is directly connect our discussions here to the flow of the Seder story told in the Haggadah. That’s for tomorrow, our last day before the Seder we’ve been preparing so assiduously to conduct.