When someone refers to another person as hard hearted we generally understand the underlying idea which is that that individual is cold, unfeeling, unconcerned, unsympathetic mean-spirited. There are many other words to describe a person like this. Yet, when it comes to the Torah portion in describing the attitude of Pharaoh as hard hearted and, secondly, that God caused him to be that way, we have to think a bit more carefully about what the Torah meant.
In the previous chapter Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron, “ I have sinned this time, the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked.Please beseech the Lord for it is enough (the plagues) that their be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go and you shall stay no longer.” It appears clear enough that Pharaoh realizes that his language not that he is a bad person but what he may have meant was that Moses god prevailed over his power and that he is acknowledging defeat.
By the time we get to chapter 10 Pharaoh reverses himself and it takes until later on in the chapter for God to bring down the final plague of the death of Egypt’s first born to finally break the will and grip Pharaoh had upon his own power let alone Israel. The opening verse of Chapter ten says, “God tells Moses to go unto Pharaoh,”for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants that I might show these signs before him.”(10:1).
I choose to focus on what it means to be hard hearted and how that played out for Pharaoh and for us as well. The entire drama between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron is a kind of negotiation. I am not thinking about this as making a deal, but, it is a kind of power negotiation in order to make a deal. The question is who has the leverage? The one who has the greatest leverage gets the best part of the deal. Moses is the returned Jew leading a slave rebellion with no army or weapons. Pharaoh may have been the most powerful man in the world who bends to Moses at the end and leads the Israelites to freedom. With God’s help, therefore, Moses had the greatest leverage over Pharaoh.
Was Pharaoh’s flaw was his own emotions and his deep-seated jealously of Moses from the time they grew up together? Yes, his pride as the reigning monarch of Egypt adds pressure to his stubbornness. I come back each time to the point that even though he realized Moses had the power of God over him and knew it would be best to let them go something inside Pharaoh said no. I maintain we are now talking about the inner relations going back to childhood between both leaders. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers and Moses and Pharaoh. All these brothers deal with rivalries that lead to conflict and, in one case, murder.Isn’t it reasonable to postulate that the underlying aspect of this power struggle reported in Exodus comes from those unresolved conflicts stemming back to their childhood?
How can brothers hurt each other this way? How can sisters do it as well? Why do we become so hard hearted with family that we are willing to risk and destroy relationships? Is this what religion and Judaism, in particular, teaches us? Yet this is exactly what we see so often in the Patriarchal narratives of Genesis and now in this week’s Torah portion. Notice in the previously mentioned narratives in Genesis, only Joseph was able to rise above his anger at his brothers to reconcile. The rest of them never do. At best Jacob and Esau go their own way.
It is true that the Torah never reveals this idea and I am projecting my own thoughts onto the story even though I have no evidence to buttress my point. Yet, we all know the nature of people and most of us have probably experienced at some point of our lives a parting of the ways with a relative. Have we ever had or witnessed that feeling of such deep seated hostility and desire to hurt inside another person regardless of the consequences? My impression is that his embedded hostility towards Moses overtook his real politique intuition or strategy to expel the Israelites because it was in Egypt’s interest to do so after the devastating effects of the plagues.
I wonder if it is too convenient for us to identify with Moses and forget that we have Pharaoh in us as well. I interpret the verse that “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh” not literally but as a way of simply describing that entrenched resentment, anger, and jealousy of his exiled adoptive brother.
When we have a lifetime of built up or pent up hostility towards a family member, it is, admittedly, difficult to change the direction of those emotions. Surely Pharaoh cared deeply about his relationship with his adopted brother while at the same time despising him. That dichotomy is the core conflict, in my estimation, between the two leaders. It is also the same tension that people since time in-memorial have experienced because it is part of being human.
The challenge for us all is how to manage those emotions and to see how self destructive those emotions are and how others in the family suffer because of our inability to cope with them. That is the real tragedy of the story of Pharaoh because of his hard heartedness so many in Egypt unnecessarily died from a plague or the soldiers from chasing the people into the Sea of Reeds.
Whether we are talking about national leaders who demonstrate that kind of uncaring and cold feeling to a nation or just the members of a family the lesson of the story of Pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion send us a message of the consequences of unbridled anger. It is a lesson we can all heed no matter what age.