The story in this week's reading raised issues for many of our great medieval Jewish philosophers. They wondered how could G-d have hardened the heart of the Pharaoh in Egypt and then held him accountable for not listening to G-d's word to free the Israelites. What happened to the promise of human free will ? And if we do not have free will how can we be liable?
While I don't presume to even be worthy to touch the feet of the great sages who offerred important insights in interpreting these troubling passages, I want to share the truth that emerges for me this year in reflecting on the question, an answer that has in it a personal challenge for me on my journey to learn and become.
Its true Pharaoh's heart was made hard by G-d. But all that did was to prevent him from succumbing to G-d's demand to free the people. Pharaoh was not punished for failing to obey G-d and set the people free. Yes, the plagues came one after another when he did not liberate the Israelites but that is not why he and the Egyptians deserved punishment. Pharaoh was punished for enslaving the Israelites, persecuting them, and killing their male children. He committed cruelties that parallel the worst anti-Semites of our modern era. Pharaoh was the proto-type for Hitler.
Pharoah never got it, no matter how many times he is visited by Moshe, nor how many plagues he is compelled to suffer, and not because his heart is hardened. Pharoah never got that what he did to the Israelites was evil. He never, even at the end, showed charata, remorse for his atrocities. Even when he said to Moshe "Hashem is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked", its more about accepting that he needs to obey G-d who is more powerful than him. His crime, to him, is his failure to let the people go. Even there he does not confess that his cruel enslavement and persecution were sinful. He is ready to re-enslave the people after they come back from there holiday in the wilderness that G-d demands he grant.
Pharaoh never changes. Not because his heart is hardened but because he is committed to evil.
Yes, in the end he adapts. After the death of the first borns he does what it takes to survive. But he never regrets his repression of a people. He never comes to acknowledge his sin much less become more kind and compassionate as a person and ruler.
While the Pharaoh as a personality is larger than life, on reflection, he has much to teach us. How often do we adapt our behaviors because it serves our needs but fail to actually change. Examples abound. We often say we are sorry to someone for something we did that offends them. Yet, like children, we do not regret our actions nor think them wrong. We merely regret the consequences they caused in the reaction of the other. We may say thank you for something done for us. We know its called for. And yet we remain ungrateful. Our thanks is merely an external adaptation and does not reflect our true sense of gratitude.
And the same is true in our religious life and the performance of mitzvot. We may daven each morning. Its the right thing to do. And yet the davening is an adaptive behavior. We simply do what is deemed appropriate. We rarely feel impelled to daven because we yearn to be in intimate conversation with the Divine. So many of our mitzvot, I suspect, we do because we know we are mandated to, rather than because we want to. We keep mitzvot "like the servant who does for his master in order to receive a reward". Sure we do the good thing. And that's important. But like the Pharaoh we do it because we feel obliged.
The work of our life is to become as "servants who serve our master regardless of the reward". Our goal is serve Hashem because we love doing for Him. We need to reach a place where we daven because we want an intimacy with Him, to feel the closeness. We need to attain a level of inner becoming where we learn because it gives us joy to study His words. All we do for others, our spouses, our children, our fellow Jew, we need to do because we want to, because it brings us pleasure to care and love in word and in deed.
The work of our life is to cultivate a taava, a desire to do the good in the same way we have a taava to do bad. I heard a wonderful story of Rav Aharon Kotler, the founder of the great Yeshiva in Lakewood and arguably the gadol hador of his generation. A man once came to visit him and told him how he was sure he had a great share in olam haba, the world to come because he supported 5 sons-in-law learning Torah. Rav Aharon said to him "Olam haba I am sure you have. But we who sit here and do the learning itself we have olam hazeh, this world!".
I do not mean to imply that if we do good things because of external expectations its bad. On the contrary, we need to do the good. But the goal in doing the good needs to be to become the good!
Our work toward shlaimut requires that we use our good actions to influence our psyche and move us to intrinsic goodness.
We are not yet whole, no matter how frume we are or how much we are medakdek b'mitzvot until we find our olam hazeh in learning, davening, and doing mitzvot.
We need to do more than do. The work of our life is to become !