How Hard Is a Hardened Heart?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Hardened Hearts

When God hardens a heart, shouldn’t that mean that the person whose heart is hardened cannot repent? While reading the beginning of the weekly Torah portion of Bo, I was struck that this does not seem true.

God tells Moshe that He hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants:

”And the LORD said to Moshe: ‘Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them.” (Ex. 10:1)

Moshe warns them about the plague of locusts, looks around and leaves. Then Pharaoh’s servants convince Pharaoh to bring Moshe back and allow him to take the Jews out of Egypt — but not with the children. That was a deal-breaker and Moshe left to bring the plague of locusts. Regarding the role of Pharaoh’s servants in bringing Moshe back, the Torah says (Ex. 10:7):

”And Pharaoh’s servants said to him: ‘How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?’”

If Pharaoh’s and his servants’ hearts were hardened, as indicated in verse 1, how could they consider letting the Jews go? And how could Pharaoh himself be convinced by his servants?

II. Repentance

These questions are made even stronger in the midrashic interpretations of this passage. On the one hand, Shemos Rabbah (13:1) records a debate between R. Yochanan and Reish Lakish about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. According to R. Yochanan, this opens the door to heretics who say that God punished Pharaoh without giving him the opportunity to repent. Reish Lakish responds that God gave Pharaoh five opportunities to repent in the earlier plagues. Only after Pharaoh repeatedly failed to repent, God closed his heart to repentance.

However, Shemos Rabbah (11:4) asks what it means that, after Moshe warned about the plague of locusts, he turned or looked around before leaving (Ex. 10:6). It answers that Moshe saw that Pharaoh’s servants were “looking at each other, believing his words. He left so they could consult on how to repent.”1

When Moshe actually brings the locusts, Shemos Rabbah (11:6) implicitly refers back to an earlier verse (Ex. 10:4) in which Moshe says that he will bring the locusts tomorrow. Why wait until the next day? The midrash answers that God gave a little extra time for them to repent. But the recipients of the warning, and therefore the extra day, were Pharaoh and his servants, whose hearts God had hardened. What good is an extra day to people who can’t repent?

III. Preventing Repentance

One possible answer is that hardening a heart does not revoke the possibility of repentance. The plagues creates pressure to conform to God’s demands. God wishes willing compliance, not coerced. Therefore, He hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants to counter the pressure of the plagues. Really, they retained the ability to repent but had to work harder to reach that decision. However, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:3) says (Touger translation):

”A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing the judgment rendered before the True Judge to be that the retribution [administered to] this transgressor for these sins which he willfully and consciously committed is that his Teshuvah will be held back. He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed.”

According to the Rambam, how do we understand the change of heart of Pharaoh and his servants that almost led to the release of the Jews before the plague of locusts?

IV. Two Types of Servants

Perhaps we can differentiate between Pharaoh’s servants. Like all leaders, Pharaoh had an inner circle of advisors. Yosef was raised to that inner circle, which afforded him great power. The Gemara (Sotah 11a) says that Pharaoh had three advisors regarding the evil decrease on the Jewish slaves — Bilam advised and was killed, Iyov was silent suffered, and Yisro fled and was rewarded. Perhaps it was that inner circles of servants who had been advising Pharaoh throughout the plagues and whose hearts were now hardened.

However, those advisors had their own assistants. This second tier of advisors, essentially working-class aides, remained silent throughout the ordeal, serving their bosses as appropriate. Their hearts were never hardened because they played no real role in leadership. But with the warning of this plague, they broke their silence. They felt their duty to their country and their own survival demanded that they rise to the occasion and warn Pharaoh of the disaster into which he was leading the country. They told Pharaoh what he needed to hear, what the people on the street were saying. He was risking Egypt’s future needlessly in his arrogance. They spoke truth to power, and he listened.

Pharaoh realized that if these lowly servants were willing to speak up, things must be very bad. He wasn’t willing to repent, to obey God even out of fear of divine punishment. Pharaoh was worried about rebellion, about the impact of his declining popularity on his ability to rule. He was willing to compromise in order to calm his own people, not in order to obey God’s orders. In this way, his hardened heart was not an obstacle to doing the right thing, because he was doing it for the wrong reason. But in the end, even the threat of rebellion could not overcome Pharaoh’s arrogance and stubbornness.

 


  1. See also Ramban and Abarbanel, ad loc. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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