The ultimate manipulation in this Parshah is when we read that God seems to be in control of Pharaoh’s “heart.” At this juncture we understand how futile a battle with the Almighty really is. Pharaoh is strung along like a marionette on a string, performing as dictated by God.
A simple, often-asked question presents itself: How can God punish Pharaoh, if he was not even acting on his own volition? Furthermore, why did the Divine Plan need to include this violation of natural law — the suspension of Pharaoh’s freedom of choice?
As far as the second question goes, we appreciate that this can be posed regarding all of the plagues. There is a certain similarity between the plagues on the one hand and the limitation of Pharaoh’s freedom of choice on the other. One is a violation of nature, the other a violation of the nature of man.
The Midrash articulates this question, noting that it opens the door for heretical thoughts: Rabbi Yochanan said: “Does this not provide heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting, since it says: ‘for I have hardened his heart’? (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3) The Midrash provides an answer: To which Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish replied: “Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up … when God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your uncleanness.'” (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3)
Rabbi Ari Kahn explains this: ‘According to this response, the hardening of the heart was itself the punishment, and not, as we assumed, merely the impetus for Pharaoh’s actions for which he was ultimately punished. The punishment Pharaoh actually receives is quite exact, measure for measure: Just as Pharaoh had closed his heart and ignored God, now Pharaoh was punished by losing the sensitivity of his heart, which he had hardened himself.’
The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments on the passage when the rods of Pharaoh and Aaron turn to serpents: ‘The Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17)—our task is to create light, not to battle darkness. Nevertheless, there are times when we are forced to resort to battle, when we must vanquish those who seek to vanquish us. Thus Moses, the gentle shepherd of Israel, and Aaron, the ultimate man of peace, find themselves in the role of “judge and chastiser of Pharaoh,” crushing the might of Egypt and obliterating its icons and myths.
Therein lies the lesson to be derived from the fact that Aaron’s rod swallowed the “serpents of the Egyptians” after it had reverted back to its original form, rather than as a serpent itself. For even when he wages war, the Jew is not a warrior. Even when he consumes the serpents of the enemy, he is not a serpent himself, spewing poison and hate. His instrument of vengeance is as devoid of vengeful feeling as a petrified rod, as cold to the rage of war as a lifeless stick.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim