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Friday Night's Sermon (1/31/20): "Hardening the Heart"

This week’s Torah parashat is “Bo”. In this portion we see the climax of the plagues inflicted on Pharaoh to get him to finally relent and allow the Israelites to leave Egypt and the house of bondage. These are the final three plagues culminating with the killing of the first-born. Pharaoh has now realized that he is up against the force of the Universe and he cannot overpower Hashem. He is defeated.

This parashat has also raised some questions about the morals and ethics about what G-d allegedly did to Pharaoh to “harden his heart” and make him rigid to Moses’ and Aaron’s requests to release the Israelites, thus setting him up for disaster. One of the main concepts in Judaism is the idea of free will. Although G-d creates, maintains and sustains, we can always choose our own path.

In Kabbalah, in the Zohar, it is stated that someone who pursues good will be shown the way; for those who pursue evil, the way is opened for them. As you seek, so shall you get. Pharaoh had decided what he wanted to do, G-d merely obliged him and in a very real sense, made his own decisions.

Pharaoh was prideful. As the ruler of Egypt, and considered a god by his people, Pharaoh had never been challenged. As Pharaoh stood over the Nile, which was considered an Egyptian god, so he felt he “stood” over all the other Egyptian gods. The idolatry of Egypt was such that these kings sought to control their gods and make them bend to their will and thus increase their power.

While most modern-day humans don’t believe in gods, there is still this tendency for some people to have that monumental pride and rule over people as sort of a god. Think of some politicians, corporate heads, heads of various groups who feel that they are in charge and it’s their word. They are enmeshed with their own power.

What happens when their power is challenged either by other people or situations?

For sensible people, who are not imprisoned by their ego, it’s about making the best choice. They derive the best option by evaluating the components of the situation, viewing various solutions and considering the outcome of those various solutions, and thus settling on the what appears to be the most efficacious course of action. Many of these people will also seek out the advice and counsel of others whom they respect for their wisdom and common sense. They reach the best solution. If that solution doesn’t work out, they try another.

This is a very simple and practical method, very much like a computer program. If the action works out, great, they’re done. If it doesn’t, try another strategy. Cold, hard logic.

For others, the process of solving a problem becomes contaminated by ego. If a solution doesn’t work out, it’s not their fault. Maybe others ruined it for them, or the environment became distorted and hostile. Instead of taking a practical course of action, they get worried that they’ll look bad or that people won’t respect them. Heaven forbid they lose their power.

This was Pharaoh. It was obvious after the first few plagues that he was out of his league. Not only couldn’t he or his wise men and magicians stop the plagues, but Moses was able to show him the exact time, per Pharaoh’s request, when the plague would end. In fact, it got to a point where even his counselors were advising him to relent, that they were up against something the was much more powerful than they.

Pharaoh wouldn’t listen. His advisors telling him to give up would have saved his pride. How does that saying go? Discretion is the better part of valor? No one would have criticized Pharaoh for allowing the Israelites to leave in the face of such overwhelming power. It was clear, and all of Egypt saw it, that they were outmatched. Pharaoh’s reputation would probably have remained intact.

The sad part is that people would have probably respected him for knowing when to quit. He was so used to having people bend to his will that he didn’t know any other way. He couldn’t give up. Pharaoh was a prisoner of his own pride. In a way, he was addicted to power and couldn’t give it up. He had indeed, sealed his own fate.

How many of us are victims of our own ego? In some of our prayers, we acknowledge humility in the face of Hashem. We surrender our egos and just favor doing what is right.

That doesn’t mean that pride and ego are completely bad. It’s important that we take pride in what we do and who we are. There is, however, a context. We take pride in doing what is right. We take pride in striving for excellence. But part of that ego is to know when it’s time to relent.

It can be a tough lesson, but worthwhile. Next time we get in our pride, let’s think of Pharaoh.

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