I just finished writing a book on Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. One of the parts I struggled most with is Pharaoh's violence and God’s hardening of his heart.
Recall the setting: It is Exodus chapter nine, and Moses and Aaron have urged Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Thus far, Pharaoh has refused, and God has responded by inflicting five plagues on Egypt.
The Egyptian people are miserable. They want Pharaoh to just let the people go. Even Pharaoh’s top advisors are urging him to relent and tell Moses the Israelites can leave.
Yet, we then read “But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them.” (Exodus 9:12)
What is the Bible Trying to Tell Us?
If we take this passage literally, we would have to conclude that God wants Pharaoh to continue to persecute the Israelites. God is willing to eliminate Pharaoh’s free will in order to inflict more plagues on Egypt.
I think we can read this differently, as the Jewish sages have done throughout the ages. God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh hardened his heart to God.
He let his hatred overcome all his rational faculties. He refused to listen to the cries of his people. He ignored the suggestions of his advisors. He let hate drive his behavior.
Pharaoh's Problem Continues Today
In Gaza the leaders of Hamas have hardened their hearts. Their hatred knows few bound. Yet, it does not reflect the will of the people.
I saw this truth first-hand when my synagogue welcomed 20 Palestinian teens a few weeks ago. Like the ancient Egyptians, they are tired of the plague of violence. The hatred of a few has overwhelmed the yearnings of the many.
The truth is no one is perfect. Many hearts have hardened among Jews and Israelis as well. All of us need to look closely at ourselves. We need to remember shared dreams rather than shared grievances.
Dancing at Each Other's Wedding
My colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous recently told a beautiful story about how this happens. It concerns two friends of hers. Both are professors at UCLA.
One friend has a sister getting married this month in Jerusalem. She fears the fighting will delay the ceremony.
The other friend, a Palestinian-American professor at UCLA, also has a sister getting married. Her wedding is to take place in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It turns out the weddings are set for the same day.
That is our hope and prayer, and so may it be God’s will.