Tag Archives: free will

Hard Hearts

parshat bo, exodus 10-13

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 26, 2023. God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened?

Sefaria Source Sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/462193


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Bo.  God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We will survey, but largely ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we will ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened? So join us for Hard Hearts.


Well, welcome rabbi from Kuwait. It’s so great to have you. I am back in in Connecticut. And we are doing this early in the morning. I have a confession to make when we do it at night. Sometimes I have a scotch on my side. But today I have I have water. So, we’ll see how that goes. How are you, Rabbi.

Adam Mintz  01:08

I’m doing great. We’re having we’re having a great time here next week; we’ll be able to go back to our usual APM time, but it’s great to do it here. And I’m looking forward to talking about hard hearts.

Geoffrey Stern  01:17

Fantastic. So, the first verse of our parsha Exodus 10: 1 it says, Then God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these my signs among them. And the word that is used is הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי , which is to be made heavy, we’ll get into that a little more. But this concept of hardening God’s heart, it’s not using a single technical term. If we look at Exodus 7: 3 looking back a little bit, it says but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I might multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. There it says וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  . I will make I would say “hard”. If I had to distinguish between the two הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי might be heavy, and אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  might be hard in Exodus 9: 12. It says but God stiffened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them just as God had told Moses. And there it uses, I would say the more the use term throughout וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק ה’ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה . He made strong.

Adam Mintz  02:41

interesting, that Sefaria translated but Hashem stiffened the heart of Pharaoh. That’s a good word stiffen.

Geoffrey Stern  02:50

In Sefaria, and by the way, I’ve posted the notes both on our podcast, but also on clubhouse above, you can look at them, you can pick the translation that you’re using, and I chose to use Everett Fox. And so that is the way that he has translated it.

Adam Mintz  03:11

Isn’t that a good word? That’s not That’s not usually the way you would think of the words Hazak , but it’s a good it’s a good word. I mean, you can you can imagine that word stiffening?

Geoffrey Stern  03:20

Yes. Although I would think that Kashe is more like stiffened, you know, Hazak, I was about to say, when we finish a book of the Torah, we go Hazak, Hazak Ve’nithazek,  and there, it kind of means strength, you should have strength. You know, because we’re looking at all these words. If I was to say, Hazek in a negotiation, I am bolstering I am giving credence, I am strengthening your position. That to me is the the way I read Veyithazek. And of all of these, it almost feels it’s more in a transaction, I could see it in terms of a legal transaction, where this guy’s case was maybe strengthened. But it’s fascinating, nonetheless, that we have so many different terms for what ultimately happened, which is somehow or another, God and Moses were able to take advantage we’re able to maybe manipulate, we’re maybe even able to exploit and encourage a reaction from pharaoh that had all of these various facets involved. And that I think is really interesting to me.

Adam Mintz  04:43

It’s fascinating. I mean, absolutely fascinating and the fact that you have identified the fact that a different word is used. You wonder you wonder whether there was a different experience or you wonder whether the Torah is not quite sure you know what that means; how you express a hardening of the heart. Because it’s not something that we see anywhere else in the Torah, this you’ll get to in a minute. The fact of course, that the idea of hardening a heart, and therefore preventing him from repenting is something that you don’t find anywhere else in the Torah. So, you know, it’s almost as if the Torah itself is struggling to express it properly.

Geoffrey Stern  05:24

Well, that’s a perfect segue….  in the introduction, I said, we were going to try to survey but nonetheless stay away from the polemics and the philosophical question of how can Pharaoh have freewill, and nonetheless, God be omnipotent. But you have to mention it. And I think the truth is that because the rabbis were so sensitive to that question of how can you judge Pharaoh, if you’re in fact, manipulating him? How can you expect him to repent if you’ve closed the gates of repentance? Because they were so sensitive to that question, it made them focus on all of the various nuances that we’re going to discuss. So, we kind of ourselves can exploit it. So, Rashi starts right from the beginning, and he is clearly sensitive to this issue, and he says in Exodus 7: 3 is commentary. He says, מֵאַחַר שֶׁהִרְשִׁיעַ , that I will allow Pharaoh’s heart to harden, since he has already wickedly resisted me. Rashi and many of the commentators are trying to say that making Pharaoh’s heart hard was a progression. And it started from Pharaoh himself, that he was evil. He had a heart that was insensitive, and was pushing him in the direction that he went. And God simply exploited it. But it started, the precipitation was from Pharaoh himself. Last week we talked about the first three plagues, and how they related to Aaron and Moses. Now the rabbi’s look at the first five plagues. And he says in the case of the first five plagues, it is not stated, The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. So again, sensitivity to this issue, made them look into the weeds and come up with this thing that the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, if you will. And then afterwards, God took advantage of that. What How does that sound to you? Good.

Adam Mintz  07:45

I mean, that sounds exactly right. But what I find interesting, of course, when you get to get to this in a later source, is this is the idea of what we call Midah Keneget Midah…  and that is that Pharaoh deserved it, since he had wickedly resisted me. And it has manifest to me that the heathen nations by no spiritual satisfaction, and setting their whole hearts return to me, it is better than his heart should be hardened should be hardened, in order that my signs may be multiplied against him, so that he may recognize my divine power. The idea that this is the punishment, you know, this is something that I say every week in my parsha class that I give in shul before davening and that is that Rashi has the following view in terms of people in the Chumash. Rashi divides the people in the Chumash into two very binary categories. You’re either good or you’re bad. There’s nobody in the middle. All the people in Bereshit, right? Yaakov is good. Esau is bad. Yitzchak is good. Ishmael is bad. And here Rashi is very clear. Pharaoh is bad. The reason that God hardens his heart is because Pharaoh is bad. And therefore he deserves it.  That’s a strong term. Know that this is the way God punishes him. He deserves it. But I think that’s something especially because you have the Ramban and you have some other views that I think that’s important to say here, Pharaoh is a bad guy and he deserves.

Geoffrey Stern  09:18

So you mentioned the Ramban, and I think what the Ramban and the other commentaries flush out are different kinds of nuances and ways of looking at this. So on Exodus 9: 12, one of these verses that said that ויחזק ה’ את לב פרעה  Ramban says the following the magicians hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to pride themselves in their wisdom.  החרטומים מחזקים את לבו להתפאר אצלו בחכמתם and then he goes on to say, afterwards once the magician’s gave up, and said hey, we can’t do that. Then his iniquities ensnared him עונותיו אשר ילכדונו . So this is kind of fascinating because we tend to think that it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But clearly, it was the circumstance that he created for himself in this particular case, and I cannot not and we’ll get to this later on, think in terms of what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. Today, in terms of Putin, you know, you have a leader, he’s surrounded, maybe he’s in a bubble, he’s surrounded by advisers. And you cannot not blame him for who he surrounds himself by. So, he is to blame. But nonetheless, the magician’s in the beginning. And here we get this sense of pride. I love pride as an explanation of what was going on here, because we’re gonna get into the words but Kaved can be heavy, but it can also mean pride Kol Hakavod, all the honors should be to you I say, l’chavod HaRav the kavod of somebody is their power, one of the Greek words that is used, is their gravitas? Gravitas is a perfect word, like Kaved, it has both gravity and weight in it. And it also has this sense of who I am and power. So here we have a struggle may be between humility, and pride. And the pride is one of pride of knowledge, the Hartumim, the magician’s feel. And they gave to Pharaoh this, this this sense of false sense of power through knowledge. But that’s a fascinating dynamic as well, is it not? And it takes the discussion a little bit away from just God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to the circumstance and the etiology of how you get into a position that Pharaoh ended up in. Where he had a hard heart that could not be softened anymore. It’s fascinating. The Ramban is completely different than Rashi. If this was a class in medieval biblical commentaries, we would say that they couldn’t be more different, because the Ramban completely ignores God, you know, giving Pharaoh what he deserves, and says that it’s really an internal Egyptian phenomenon. Isn’t that fascinating? It has to do with the magicians and how the magicians dealt with Pharaoh, what the magicians thought of themselves. I mean, you wonder what led the Ramban. And this is an interesting question, what led the Ramban to give this kind of explanation? Because I think in this case, Rashi’s explanation is more to the point, the Ramban is a little more fanciful, because you don’t see that anywhere in the text. So there’s one refrain that keeps on coming up every time or pretty much every time God says I’m going to harden his heart, he typically will say, in order that I may display these my signs among them, that I will multiply my signs and Marvels. God has an agenda, it would seem, and I think what Ramban is focused on is how God kivi’yachol (as if to say) is exploiting the situation for his own ends. So in the Ramban Exodus 10: 1, it says that God is hardening his heart, not in order that I can punish him more on account of hardening his heart, but in order so that I can give my message so that I can publicize my power. So that’s kind of interesting to where God has an agenda and is taking advantage of the situation. And at a certain point when God takes over on the sixth plague, and starts actually, whether it’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, are creating a situation that inevitably forces Pharaoh deeper into the corner, he’s exploiting it for something.

Adam Mintz  14:42

Yeah. And that relates to another question, and that is that in this week’s Parsha we have the last three plagues. We have locusts, we have darkness and we have the death of the first born. The question is asked by the commentators and the Ramban has a very specific view on this one What was the purpose of the plagues was the purpose of the plagues to prove to the Jews that God was God? What was the purpose of the plague to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? And it sounds from the Ramban, as if the purpose was to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? Right. That’s interesting. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Geoffrey Stern  15:23

Yeah, it is. It is interesting. You know, the fascinating thing is, because what lies at the source of your question is Why didn’t we just fast forward to the last plague? That’s ultimately the plague that hit at the heart of Pharaoh.

Adam Mintz  15:40

He’s God. He could have snapped his fingers and done it in one second. What did we need? I mean, let’s assume that the rabbinic interpretation is right, that it took a year for the plagues. What do you need a year for? That’s a year of slavery for the Jews. I mean if you were a slave, a year’s a long time, right. It’s international Holocaust Day this weekend, you know, a year could you imagine a year, God forbid, in a concentration camp, you say, another day in a concentration camp, you’d do anything to avoid?

Geoffrey Stern  16:10

And so the year enables us to really look at this as a process. And then the question becomes, what is the process? One of the fascinating things is, you mentioned today is Holocaust Day, it’s also a day that that Germany announced that it was going to permit tanks to be given to the Ukrainians. Imagine what would have happened if they had said that on day one. They that would have made Putin react in a totally different way, I believe then he is hopefully going to react now. Because it was so incremental. First, it was only body armor, then it was defensive weaponry. Now, all of a sudden, it’s almost like the plagues, and we’re gonna get to Erich Fromm at the end, who really did make a parallel between the Cold War and this whole process, this year process, if you will, with Pharaoh, but you can really see it, you can see that God in a sense, the text is threading a needle, and it is going somewhere. And I do think that that is absolutely fascinating. And in our Parsha in 8: 28, it says גם בפעם הזאת also this time. And what Rabbeinu Bachya says is that there is clearly up progression here that the first few plagues you had the magician’s, then it was Pharaoh all alone, and it was Pharaoh hardening his own heart, then it was God starting to harden his heart again, and what it shows us and I think this is the crux of the message of one of the messages that we have to take away and is that wonderful saying and Pirke Avot that says that one good deed leads to another מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה  and one transgression leads to another in Avot 4: 2 עֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה  there is an etiology of sin, there is an etiology of once you pick your path and you go down it, yes, initially, it can be the influence of the Hartumim; the magician’s. And then next, it can be your own pride. And then ultimately, whether it’s God forcing your hand or you’ve dug yourself so deep, you can’t get out anymore, you actually do lose your free will. And that is where I think psychology and our own experience can parallel so much of what the rabbi’s have been saying, which is there was a transition here from having free will on the part of Pharaoh to not having free will, and then having other parties who are able to exploit the situation for their own ends. It’s a fascinating studying in how we can I can can put ourselves into a corner.

Adam Mintz  19:14

I think that’s right. I mean, I think that progression, you know, this goes back to your question, why didn’t God just snap his fingers and just take the Jews out of Egypt? Go to plague 10? The answer is that it’s all in the progression. And that’s the question what the progression is the Ramban’s view is that progression was to convince the Egyptians that God was God, that can’t happen in one second. You know, basically, I think what the Ramban says whether he says it explicitly or not, is had God just done the 10th plague? You could have written it off; you would have said, you know, it was in the water or something happened to the first born, whatever you would say, you would explain it away. But a whole year of this, you can’t you can’t explain that away. That That must be something.

Geoffrey Stern  20:01

So it as the rabbi’s of evaluating this, they come up with some fascinating insights as well. And again, I think I’m not a big fan of polemics. I’m not a big fan of apologetics, which are both terms used when others say Ha-ha, you see, you’re a hypocrite you say you believe in one God, and that God permits you free will and you can do teshuva, something that a Polytheist doesn’t have to worry about because he can play one god off of another. But when you have this, this structure that Judaism introduced into the world, you have Talmudic chapters that talk about the non-Jews will point their finger at you and say, aha, you see, this is wrong, you’re not consistent. But that forces the rabbis to then look at these texts in a new way. So, you might forget about the polemics. You know, we mentioned a Hebrew University professor a few weeks ago, called Umberto Cassuto. And he says, if you read the text, just the way it was written, none of these philosophical questions come up. If you look at this as an act of war, where Moses and God are fighting for the freedom of their people, and Pharaoh is holding it back. hardening the heart is just another way of saying It’s another tool. It’s like a battering ram to knock it down. And he hardened his heart, he manipulated the situation. But nonetheless, because they were apologetics around here, it forced the rabbis to look at it in a new way. And, and one of the insights that Rashi gives is, he says, and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in 7: 22. He says, You are doing this by witchcraft: “You are bringing straw to Afarayim”— a city that is full of straw; thus you bring sorcery to Egypt, a land that is full of sorcery (Menachot 85a; Exodus Rabbah 9:6-7). He is saying that God sunk down to the level of the Egyptians and was playing with them. Because it was kind of like selling ice to the Eskimos, since they had magicians, since they were at the top of the world in terms of the technology of magic, God could have taken a totally different route. But instead, he played by their rules. And of course, that just pulled them into it. So he threw down the staff, they threw down the staff turn the water into blood. This is a fascinating analysis of why we had to go through these 10 plagues. He took advantage of their weakness, of their hubris and of their pride, and he took it to the nth degree.

Adam Mintz  22:54

I think that’s right, that’s correct. And he made the point that your hubris, your arrogance is what gets you in trouble. Because if you realize that God is the one who controls everything, then you need to be humble, not arrogant, right. It’s all related to belief in God is the opposite of hubris.

Geoffrey Stern  23:16

So in Exodus 10: 3 it says, So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, how long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go that they may worship Me, and the Hebrew is עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י , “anot”is to be poor. It is to be very humble. We all know that Moses in Numbers 12: 3 says, Now Moses was very humbled more so than any other human being on Earth. עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד . So here this is fascinating, because we normally think of humility, as something that a very pious person is. But if you take humility, and you contrast it to this heavy heart, this heart full of hubris, this hot, full of rigor mortis, this stiff, heart humility, becomes something that opens you up to other ideas that opens you up to think differently. It becomes a powerful strategy, as well as something that is a characteristic thought of highly. That to me this, this kind of, if only you Egyptians would humble yourself, you would be able to take advantage and you would be able to take stock of this situation. That to me is a fascinating insight into the power of Moses, the leader, who was this humble person, as counterposed to Pharaoh, this person who was closed and rigid and stiff.

Adam Mintz  24:58

And let me make that point even stronger… it’s interesting עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י . How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? That’s not the way you should say it. How long will you be arrogant? But no, it’s not how long will you be arrogant? It’s that he refuses to be humble. It’s not that he’s arrogant, but that he has the ability to be humble, but he refuses to be humble. And that’s exactly what you’re saying. And that is that the process is to force him to be humble, because he’s refusing to be humble.

Geoffrey Stern  25:35

Absolutely. You know, a year or two ago, we did an episode on bathroom ethics. Because the first plague started with Pharaoh going down into the Nile, because he thought of himself as a God who doesn’t defecate, and in Shemot Rabbah 9: 8 in which it tells that story. It starts by saying that Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn Another interpretation of PHARAOH’s HEART IS STUBBORN (KABED). God said to him: Wretch! With word with which thou showest thy stubbornness, will I glorify Myself (mith-kabed) over thee, as it is Said: And I will get Me honor upon Pharaoh   So here, it all comes together, God is taking advantage of the stubbornness of Pharaoh to honor himself. The rabbis in this one are taking this sense of Kava aid, which can mean to honor somebody, and also bring somebody down. And typically, you think of the negative side of honor that a person thinks too highly of themselves, they have too much gravitas, that weight weighs them down. But here in a flip of words, they are saying that God strategically is taking advantage of pharaohs, perception of himself as a God, to turn that into honoring God through these miracles kind of a fun play with words, but one that shows how aware the rabbis were of what was the dynamic going on here, in terms of the power play?

Adam Mintz  27:12

I love that. I think that’s really nice. And I think that’s what it is. It’s a power play that relates to refusing to humble, it’s a power play, right? I mean, each side is trying to get the other side to budge. I think that that’s interesting, now, God wins at the end. That’s a very important point, because from the Egyptian’s perspective is you have to remember this, and that is the Egyptians have many of their own gods. So for God to win, means God wins over the ancient gods, and that the people have to recognize that God is not just one of the gods, but God is a special God. That’s a very important point. It’s not one against one, it’s one against many, and God is recognized as being the one God.

Geoffrey Stern  28:03

Absolutely, I love that the fact that we’re talking about this power plane. So Martin Luther King, Jr, two years after, on the anniversary of the rule that was passed, that permitted everybody to have a fair education. He wrote a book and in the book, he had a chapter called The death of evil upon the seashore. And it was all about the Exodus. And we talked about this a few weeks ago in terms of the power of the Exodus story. But he, like us is not focused on this dynamic of free choice. He’s focused on this dynamic of power. And he writes, “The Pharaohs stubbornly refused to respond to the cry of Moses. Plague after plague swept through the Pharoah’s domain, and yet they insisted on following their recalcitrant path.”  And here’s the punchline. “This tells us something about evil that we must never forget. It never voluntarily relinquishes its throne. Evil is stubborn, hard and determined. It never gives up without a bitter struggle and without the most persistent and almost fanatical resistance.”  I love what Martin Luther King Jr. Does with our discussion. He says, if it’s a year, if it’s a lifetime of struggling with these plagues, it’s to show us that evil doesn’t go away so easy. And that is the crux of our story here. And that is the crux of the hard heart of Pharaoh to tell you; don’t think that this is just gonna go away. And this is even more, I think, powerful coming from a man who believed in nonviolent resistance, but it is such a powerful take on this whole subject that we’ve been discussing.

Adam Mintz  29:56

It’s beautiful, it really pulled puts the whole thing kind Given perspective and you’re right the fact that he was against violence really makes the point all that much stronger I think.

Geoffrey Stern  30:07

So I want to finish up with Eric Fromm um one of my favorite books if I haven’t said it before, really impacted me in my in my journey into Judaism was You shall be as gods by Erich Fromm And Erich Fromm, clearly was a psychologist. He was a thought leader, but he was a totally engaged in his Judaism and in his texts. And if you read that book, you’ll see from his footnotes and notes, he studied these texts. And he glosses over the difference between I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh hardened his heart, it’s all the same. He says What the biblical text stresses here is one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom does he have to change: the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical or spiritual destruction, and then he goes on to bring it to history that he thought in the 60s was the past, but it’s still here. He says, Anyone who reads the story attentively will recognize that the miracles Moses and Aaron perform on behalf of God are not miracles intended to change man’s heart. In the first place they are from the very beginning meant only to impress both the Hebrews and the Egyptians. They are in their nature no different from what the Egyptian magicians are not able to do, except that eventually the Hebrews’ secret weapons prove to be a little more effective. The irony of the story is that the all-powerful God chose miracles which repeat, or only slightly improve on, Egyptian magic.  So here Fromm is saying literally what Rashi said a few seconds ago, which I called selling ice to the eskimos, that God is talking and arguing with Pharaoh, in a very infantile way, to show us that this is not a story about God. It’s a story about humanity, and how we fall into a pit and into a rut. Indeed, he says, Indeed, perhaps never in human history has it been possible to understand this part of the biblical story as well as today. Two powerful blocs of mankind are attempting to find a solution to the threat of weapons – weapons compared to which the ten plagues appear harmless. Until now both sides have shown better sense than did Pharaoh; they have yielded …. So, he goes on, and I suggest you look at the notes. But what is so fascinating as we see Putin, and Russia and Ukraine play out, and America is number one, the open question which we didn’t discuss is, is even Moses and God on the same page? God, is trying to exploit the situation to bring pride to him, Moses is trying to get out of the country, and Pharaoh is trying to protect his pride in his regime. So there were actually three actors here. And I suggest to all of you that nowhere has current events served as a better prism, to look at our Torah reading, then we are living through today.

Adam Mintz  33:53

I think that’s really beautiful. And the fact that at the very end, you brought up the fact that Moshe is not necessarily on the same page as God, and that God is worried about proving, God’s value in the fact that God should win among the gods. And Moshe doesn’t really care about that at all. But Moshe cares about is getting out of the country. I think it’s a really good topic. And I think we can look forward maybe next year in Parshat Bo to dealing with that topic. Shabbat Shalom from Dubai. I look forward to being back in New York next week on the same time zone 8pm New York Eastern Standard Time. I hope the weather is nice and Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Shabbat shalom, Geoffrey and regards to everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  34:32

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi, Shabbat Shalom to all of us. And all of us should have a soft heart, an open heart and open mind. I’ll see you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/462193

Listen to last year’s Parshat Bo Podcast: Walk Like an Egyptian

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