Va’eira: Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

Did Pharaoh have free will?

Our Sages teach that God’s messengers, the angels, help a person in the direction she or he chooses to go, for good or for evil. How does this relate to Pharaoh’s hardened heart?


Table for Five: Va’eira

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had foretold through Moses. -Ex. 9:35


Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE, Counselor, Author

The Torah warns us not to blindly follow our heart’s desires. The name “Israel” is an anagram of Rosh Li, “my head,” indicating that our mind is capable of ruling over our heart and controlling our destructive passions. Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, allowed himself to become captive to the wicked desires of his heart, which overrode his intellectual capacity.

Tanya explains that the title “Pharaoh” is connected to the word periah, “removing” as used in relation to the mitzvah of bris milah, removing the skin through circumcision. Rather than control his desires, Pharaoh smothered his heart in layers of sin after sin in such a thick covering that he brought upon himself timtum halev, a spiritual hardening of the heart.

We can take steps to prevent this from happening to us. Foremost among them is the bedtime routine of Shema, which includes a nightly examination of our deeds, likened to “flossing” our heart, cleaning it of the accumulation of plaque-like sins and creating space for the return of our spiritual sensitivity. This nightly repentance is like a wind that pushes away the thick clouds and lets the sun’s rays shine brightly. The rest of the bedtime service comprises prayers and Psalms that remind us of G-d’s presence and protection in our lives, and strengthen our determination to do better the next morning. It’s like taking vitamins to protect against spiritual insensitivity. So, say Shema tonight, and drift into sleep joyfully, knowing that your head is over your heart, and in G-d’s hands.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

It is an uncomfortable theology to imagine any human, even Pharaoh, as a pawn or marionette, activated exclusively by God’s will. Even more so, when punishment seems to come as a result of behavior ostensibly beyond one’s control. No ethical question hovers more ponderously over the Exodus story than this one: how could a benevolent God, one whose omnipotence could have secured the Israelites’ freedom without any attendant, and undue, Egyptian suffering, seemingly willfully punish Pharaoh for a heart that God had hardened? In our verse, it is clear that God predicted this hardened heart. In other verses, it is God doing the hardening.

S’forno (among others) attempts to explain this conundrum by saying that God was not flexing muscle in order to preen, but rather to show Pharaoh (and the world) the power and import of teshuvah, atonement. Each time Pharaoh’s heart hardened, he was invited (forced?) to become a penitent, thus transforming him from tyrant to a pseudo-model.

A more convincing, and psychologically astute, reading is that in life, habits are hard to break. The first time Pharoah’s heart is hardened, the Torah makes it clear it is by his own doing. Only after a pattern of cruel obstinacy is established does the language switch towards God as the cause. As if to say: God’s world is one in which your own negative behaviors will endure, and resist change. By inference, every compassionate deed you do creates a pattern, and legacy, of goodness.


Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

The verb that begins this verse (yehezak = stiffened) belongs to a special class of verbs in Hebrew. It is a stative verb, a verb that indicates a state of being rather than a volitional action. The implication of this for our verse is that not only did Pharaoh not stiffen his own heart here, but even his heart took no part in its own stiffening. It simply became stiff, as God had foretold and decreed. Puzzlingly, this is in contrast to the previous verse wherein Pharaoh “hardened” his own heart. The verb in that verse (yachbed) is both causative and volitional. Pharaoh was intent on rendering himself insensible to the requests of the Hebrews and to the suffering the plagues were bringing upon his nation.

The Seforno offers an explanation to this seeming incongruity. It is based on the Talmudic axiom that a person is led to wherever he or she wants to go (Makot 10b). Pharaoh resolved to remain hard-hearted, but he was concerned that the toll of the upcoming plagues would overwhelm him and soften his temperament towards the Hebrews. To address this, God helped Pharaoh remain true to his convictions despite the impact of the plagues.

We can glean from this an important and encouraging lesson. Even if we have doubts about whether we can remain true to our positive resolutions, we must trust that God will facilitate the purest intentions of our hearts. Our task is merely to steel our hearts to struggle for good.


Lt. Yoni Troy, IDF officer

This verse marks the turning point in the great exodus when G-d takes away Pharaoh’s free choice to make an example out of him and the Egyptians. This story raises many theological questions regarding free choice and repentance. We all have free choice and the option to repent — even Pharaoh — but there are limits. Under pressure, Pharaoh will say anything to get out of trouble. However, he isn’t sincere.

The IDF unit I command includes many soldiers from difficult backgrounds with little motivation to serve beyond their legal obligation. Faced with soldiers who come from backgrounds of abuse, grew up in broken homes, or have parents suffering from emotional or drug-related problems, and more, I have learned that harsh militaristic discipline often backfires. Punishing these kids in an educational way, sometimes just talking to them, helps them grow into soldiers, then, eventually, functioning citizens.

However, there are red lines. When a soldier goes too far, I reach a turning point similar to the one in our text. At that moment, a statement must be made with harsh militaristic discipline, forcing the soldier to pay for the egregious actions.

Judaism teaches that repentance doesn’t give you a free pass. Sinners must still pay for their transgressions. This nuance fine-tunes our understanding of free choice. We must acknowledge the world’s limits. We must remain sensitive to our actions to try moving the world forward to a better place and not G-d forbid, move the world in the wrong direction, Pharaoh-like.


Aliza Lipkin, Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel

Moshe was instructed by God to lead the Jewish nation in the greatest Exodus of all time. Moshe demurred and only after much coaxing was God able to convince him to accept the mission with the assistance of his brother Aharon. Moshe and Aharon approached Pharaoh requesting that he allow the slave nation to embark on a three-day journey into the wilderness to serve God. Pharaoh not only refused the request but intensified the workload on the slaves.

The Jews were left depleted of energy and bereft of hope, thus rejecting subsequent messages delivered by God through Moshe and Aharon. Moshe, having his fear of failure confirmed, regresses back to questioning God as to his own capabilities. It was at this point that God informed Moshe that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh began a pattern of acquiescing to the demands to release the people after each plague only to harden his heart and change his mind each time. It was this ongoing obstinacy in the face of justice by Pharaoh that seemed to embolden Moshe and increased his confidence progressively after each plague.

The first six plagues were a joint effort by God, Moshe, and Aharon as necessitated by Moshe’s insecurities. The seventh plague begins with Moshe taking the staff and ends with him reaching his hands to the heavens. He had finally gained the confidence to become the willing instrument of God. As the Pasuk states, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened as Hashem had spoken through the hand of Moshe.

With thanks to Miriam Yerushalmi, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Lt. Yoni Troy, and Aliza Lipkin. 

Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Read more at the Jewish Journal.

Share to

You Might Also Like

Sign Me Up

Sign me up!

Our newsletter goes out about twice a month, with links to our most popular posts and episodes.