Plagues as Punishment and Education

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama started last time with the certainty Hashem will never remove freewill nor deny a sincere repentance. It left him wondering why Hashem would harden Par’oh’s heart during the course of the plagues. We’re ready for his answer.

Sentences Come Regardless of Regret

Three principles ground his view. First, people who incur punishments must undergo them, regardless of change after the crime. A bank robber’s later regret cannot free him/her of the punishment for the crime [it might lead a judge to lessen the rehabilitative element]. Tradition does say repentance helps us avert some consequences of our actions, which R. Arama limits to divine ones.

A human court which has issued a sentence cannot factor in the evildoer’s repentance, as Devarim 17;7 and 13 say, we punish to remove evil from our midst and to teach a lesson to the rest of the nation. The former goal might be reached by the sinner’s change; the latter goal clearly requires the punishment. Were last-minute repentance a sort of “Get Out of Jail” card, legal discipline would break down, with everyone doing as they wished, then repenting.

Nor can we say Hashem should be more ready to forego the punishment. Where Hashem’s Name or reputation (as it were) is on the line (in Hebrew terms, where the matter affects kiddush Hashem, sanctification of Hashem’s Name), Hashem “must” punish. It’s why the punishment for Moshe and Aharon’s hitting the rock at Mei Merivah could not be commuted or reduced; for all they repented and were forgiven, the punishment had to stay, to make a point about obedience to Hashem.

Yoma 86a expresses the idea for the flip side, chillul Hashem. Desecration of Hashem’s Name takes four steps to atonement, repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering, and then the sinner passing away, never having returned to the chillul Hashem. All the steps must be undergone, R. Arama means, cannot be circumvented or avoided.

Spreading It Out

The last principle, which explains how Hashem treated Par’oh, notes some people cannot bear the punishments they deserve. A sinner who is liable for a large number of lashes cannot take them all together, which might lead a judge to give breaks, and/or to nourish the convict, to help him regain his strength. Hashem did the same with the plagues.

Par’oh committed three main wrongs, according to R. Arama. The two more minor ones were his ignoring Yosef’s contributions to Egyptian society, and breaching various covenants the Egyptians had made with the Jews. Last, when Par’oh pitched his plan to his wise people, he said hava nitchakmah lo, let’s be wiser than him.” Sotah 11a read the “him” as Hashem. At the start of slavery, Par’oh knew the connection between Hashem and the Jews, and still thought he could get away with it.

Hashem had told Avraham his descendants’ oppressors would be judged and punished. The plagues were the deserved punishment for all these past acts, according to R. Arama, and therefore not susceptible to repentance. The Jews who had suffered under Par’oh deserved to have their taskmasters taken to task, and the importance of making Hashem’s Presence and power clear to the world (especially the Egyptians) demanded it. To make it happen, to allow the plagues to drive home the points about Hashem they will make (as he will lay out), Par’oh and the Egyptians needed time between plagues to recover, and help to keep them from telling the Jews to go.

Rope to Hang Themselves

To explain, he turns to Makkot 10b, where Rabbah bar R. Huna says in the name of R. Huna (or, as the Gemara tells us in its search for accurate attributions, it may have been R. Huna in the name of R. Elazar) Hashem leads people on the path they desire. R. Arama thinks the Gemara means Hashem leaves room for people to convince themselves of the correctness of the path they prefer. As Yoma 38b says, when a person works to defile him/herself by sin, Heaven opens the door to allow it [in contrast, the Gemara assumes Heaven helps a person who comes to purify him/herself]. Similarly, Mishlei 28;14 says one who hardens his (own) heart will fall into misfortune.

The room Hashem gives people to follow the path they wanted counts as hardening their hearts. [An idea a step less interventionist than Ramban. Ramban said Hashem gave Par’oh the inner strength to hold to the path he wanted in the face of great troubles, which does mean Hashem worked on Par’oh’s internal states; R. Arama says Hashem shaped the situation to leave room for Par’oh to convince himself his path was the correct one. Translated to the rest of us, it’s a warning Hashem gives us the room to make the mistakes we want].

King Shlomo’s son Rechav’am provides an example, I Melachim 12, when he rejects the good advice of the elders and opts for the self-serving advice of his childhood friends. Hashem wanted the outcome, to punish late-in-life misdeeds of Shlomo’s, but did not force it. Rather, Hashem left room for Rechav’am to walk into the trap [next time, we’ll.

Par’oh himself gives us a clear example in Shemot 14. After the leave Egypt, Hashem has the Jews encamp near the Sea, which Hashem knows will lead Par’oh to assume they were confused, trapped by the desert. There, too, a verse speaks of Hashem hardening Par’oh’s heart. It happens again when Moshe splits the sea; Hashem precedes the miracle with a wind which blew all night, to let the Egyptians fool themselves (as do many people today, Jewish and not) into thinking the event was natural—opening the door to their thinking they, too, could make it through the Sea before it reverted to normal.

A similar dynamic dooms Sichon, whom Moshe says had his spirit hardened by Hashem, Devarim 2;30. For R. Arama, the hardening came when Hashem told the Jews to avoid war with Moav, ‘Ammon, and Edom. Sichon read the events as proof they could not match up with those kingdoms, and certainly not with him.

Hashem takes credit for it, tells Moshe He has given Sichon into their hands (the words can be read as a promise, a declaration it as if Sichon is already in their hands. R. Arama reads it more literally, “I have already engineered events for Sichon to go to war with you, letting you beat him and take his land.”). It’s exactly like an ambush, R. Arama says, giving an enemy an opening to take actions to his detriment.

Par’oh’s Refusals Shape the Plagues

R. Yehudah’s “signs” for the plagues, which we recite in the Haggadah, tell R. Arama they came in groups, to make four points: Hashem exists, is involved with the world, has a special connection to the Jewish people, and sent Moshe to redeem them.

Par’oh denies Hashem and any need to listen to Hashem, including a flat refusal to send the Jews where Moshe asked. His repudiation necessitated proving the claims, for all of humanity and especially for the Jews, who might be swayed by the certainty of the Egyptians among whom they lived. The first set of three plagues proved Hashem’s existence (and powers over nature), the second set Hashem’s connection to the Jewish people, the third set showed the plagues could not be natural in any way, and the last one proved Moshe’s messengership.

Working Towards Points Hashem Wanted to Make Anyway

We’ll see how he reads each lesson into the plagues next time. Before we get there, he concedes Hashem seems to want all the plagues to occur, in order for the Jews to tell their descendants, for all of history. In fact, R. Arama suggests Hashem’s use of four languages of redemption and the four cups of wine we drink at the Seder reflect these four basic principles [it’s important for us to see here what other commentators make clear as well: the acts of the Seder aim to imprint ideas and a worldview; if we do all the acts and finish the Seder unchanged, we’re missing the point]. Hashem did not force Par’oh into any of it, yet Par’oh’s choices did ease Hashem’s way to some of His goals.

R. Arama’s reading negates Ramban’s distinction among types of strengthening of Par’oh’s heart. The verses sometimes say Hashem did the strengthening and sometimes does not; R. Arama thinks it’s all the same, predicted from the start, means only Hashem shaped events to give Par’oh room.

The Torah says  (Shemot 9;35) Par’oh’s heart strengthened after the plague of hail ended, and Hashem then commanded Moshe (10;1) to go to Par’oh, “for I have hardened his heart.” The casual switch shows R. Arama the insignificance of the difference.

Listen the First Time

I am skipping the verses from Nach (Yeshayahu and Mishlei) he cites, with the upshot Hashem sends tell us how we should act, with enough support for us to receive the message, should we be open to it. Moshe tells Par’oh Hashem wants him to let the Jews go, Par’oh likely had heard of the Patriarchs, had certainly heard of Yosef, whom the Egyptians conceded enjoyed Divine providence.

Moshe performed a sign as well; instead of accepting it, Par’oh insisted his sorcerers could do the same, and put himself and his nation on an alternative path, one which ends at the same place: proof of Hashem’s existence, connection to the Jewish people, power over nature, and the messengership of Moshe.

Par’oh had ample reason to heed Moshe’s first message; Hashem hardened his heart in the sense of leaving room for him to make poor choices. As he did. Let’s hope in retelling the story, we fortify ourselves to use the room Hashem leaves us to make better choices, to not be among those who stumble with freedom, to be among those who instead walk well and productively in Hashem’s ways. Next time, the plagues.

About Gidon Rothstein

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