Parshat Vaeira

Darkness fell on Egypt
A Hardened Heart
A fundamental principle of Mussar is that inner change is possible. Why then does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? The Mussar approach is to seek an answer in the psychological make-up of the mind – how God created our minds. We form habits, and with repetition habits become harder to dislodged. More extreme experiences through suffering become necessary to reset our thoughts and emotions.

This approach does have precedent in the tradition. The Midrash finds the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God as problematic also, and provides several explanations. One explanation is that Pharaoh’s outer reactions, his protestations and pleadings to Moses, were not sincere, and that his cruelty was deep-set. Not quite reaching a level of psychological causation, the Midrash goes on to explain the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a way to insure that he was punished for his inner impurity. In other sections, the Midrash explores the psychology of tyrants, particularly how their arrogance and conceit becomes delusional and self-destructive.

Shemot (7: 3-6) (Robert Alter, trans.)
“And I on My part shall harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and my portents in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall set My hand against Egypt and I shall bring out My battalions, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with great retributions, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.”

Shemot (7:22) (JPS)
But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them—as the LORD had spoken.

Shemot (8: 10-11) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And Pharaoh saw that there was relief and he hardened his heart and did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken.

Shemot (8:15) (JPS)
and the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not heed them, as the LORD had spoken.

Robert Alter
It should be noted that three different verbs are used in the story for the action on or in Pharaoh’s heart: hiqshah, “to harden,” hizeq, “to toughen,” or in other contexts, “to strengthen”, and kaved, literally, “to be heavy,” which in English unfortunately suggests sorrow when linked with the heart, and so it has been rendered “harden” in this translation. The force of all three idioms is to be stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible, and there doesn’t seem to be much differentiation of meaning among the terms, though elsewhere hizeq linked with heart has a positive meaning – “to show firm resolve.”

Job 36:13
But the impious in heart become enraged: They do not cry for help when He afflicts them.

Midrash Rabbah Shemot (13:3)
Pharaoh did not pay heed to His words, the Holy One, blessed is he, said to him, “You have stiffened your neck and made your heart stubborn; I shall in turn add impurity for you onto your previous impurity by taking away your ability to repent.” … the Holy One, blessed is He, made [Pharaoh’s] heart like the liver, in which stiffness sets if cooked a second time; similarly, Pharaoh’s heart became stiff like the liver the more God warned him, and therefore he did not accept the words of the Holy One, blessed is He.

When God speaks of hardening Pharaoh’s heart to Moses, what seems to be the reason? In contrast, is there a different cause supplied for Pharaoh’s stubbornness in later parts of Chapter 7 and 8? How might the two explanations be related?

How might stubbornness, resolve, and arrogance look the same? What difference do you see between them?

In the Bible, heart refers to what we would call mind. In the sense that heart is “knowing, feeling, and willing,” (Jewish Encyclopedia 1906), what would it mean to have a hardened heart?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
The key to success in avodas Hashem is the ability to have our Torah and avodah penetrate our hearts. It is not enough to learn and perform mitvos; Hashem’s words must be firmly implanted in our hearts.

This is where Pharaoh failed. He suffered through every one of the plagues, and was as miserable as all of the other Egyptians. However, he put up a tough front and simply did not allow the pain and misery to penetrate his heart. As soon as the danger passed, he reverted to his old ways. He was cognizant of what was happening, but the knowledge remained in his head and did not reach to his heart.

What does Rabbi Wolbe mean by a hardened heart? Why is an opened heart – a circumcised heart – important for avodas Hashem? In your own experience what does it mean to know something intellectually but not to feel it? What are different kinds of “knowing”?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
Suffering can have two effects. It may bring a person to teshuva because his experience arouses him to recognize the spark of truth in his own heart. Suffering may, however, simply break a person’s will. His desires become weakened by his many tribulations. The difference is that in the second case, if the sufferings are removed, his desires and his sins will return. But even this is a kind of teshuva. At the moment, at least, he is not sinning. But it is not true teshuva because the evil is still established in his heart.

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not an extraordinary event. It is repeated in the heart of every person during his struggles with his yetzer ha’ra. We should note that “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” is translated by Targum Yonatan as “I will harden the yetzer of Pharaoh’s heart.”

What are different ways that people respond to their own suffering? What might it mean to be “hardened” by suffering or “opened” by suffering?