Immersed in the drama of liberating his enslaved people, Moses prepares to appear before Pharaoh, to insist that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt. God instructs his servant, Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them..."
Throughout the years, as Jews gather to recount the exodus from Egyptian slavery, that passage causes puzzlement, resentment, and embarrassment. It sounds like God purposely makes it impossible for Pharaoh to do the right thing, even if he wanted to. Perhaps Pharaoh could have come to see the justice of what Moses was asking for. Or, perhaps he wasn't really such an evil person and only acted the way he did because he was under the influence.
Under God's heavy-handed influence, Pharaoh's heart turned heavy too.
As if we don't have enough problems with what God does to Pharaoh, there's also the issue of God's justification for making Pharaoh so irresponsible. The reason God provides as justification is that Pharaoh's refusal to let the Jews go will permit a display of divine power that will make a big impression on everyone around.
The problem is that all this makes it sound like Divine ego prevents Pharaoh from being a mentsch! That hardly reflects the lofty ethics that we expect from the Torah. It hardly corresponds to the selfless love we expect from God.
As unpleasant as this intrusion of divine power may be, as morally questionable as it seems, it is nonetheless true that it reflects the reality of human psychology and behavior.
A wonderful story in Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah affirms that the process that Pharaoh went through is very much like the process of desensitization that we all require to endure life's unpleasant situations.
Rabbi Yohanan shares our moral discomfort with God's role. He asks, "Doesn't this [heart-hardening] provide skeptics with the grounds for arguing that Pharaoh had no possibility of repenting?"
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish responds that "when God warns someone once, twice, and even a third time, and that person doesn't repent, then and only then does God close his heart against repentance and exact vengeance from his sins. Thus it was with wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he sent no notice, God then said, 'You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own; well, I will add to your uncleanness.... So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God."
Isn't that how the human heart always works: At first, we are strong enough to say "no" to temptation. The first time we give in to an illegitimate urge, we do so only moderately, and amidst great guilt and anxiety.
With each succeeding indulgence, our guilt is a little less, and our participation a little more sweeping and whole-hearted. After a few exposures to the lust of the moment, we are soon enjoying it without even recalling our initial discomfort or lofty standards.
In short, our hearts, like Pharaoh's, become hardened. Passing a beggar on the street without responding to his need is impossible for children because they aren't used to it. But for a hardened resident of any American city, they get to a point where they no longer even see the humanity of the hungry person before them, no longer hear the sorrow or despair in the voice that calls out to them .
In so many ways, our hearts, too, have become hard. Are we really willing to live in a country teeming with homeless people, with hunger an ever-present affliction, with illness and illiteracy and bigotry established in our midst?
Open your hearts, once again, to outrage. Our brothers and our sisters are suffering among us. Our indifference permits their pain. Our hardened hearts allow their disgrace.
Pharaoh wasn't evil; he was just apathetic. Indifference is all it takes for evil to triumph.
Does anybody care?