THOUGHT FOR PARSHAT VAERA 5779
BY RABBI CHAIM FACHLER
One of the most frequently asked question about the ten plagues, seven of which appear this week, is how fair was it to punish Pharaoh when he didn't have a choice? HaShem promises that Pharaoh's heart will be hardened. Even if Pharaoh wanted to let the People of Israel out of Egypt, HaShem took away his free will. Pharaoh refused against his will. So why punish him?
More than 50 years ago, I heard an explanation from Rabbi Ordman z”l of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in London, which remains my personal favourite.
It is a historical fact that in those days, Egypt wasn't only the cultural centre of the civilised world, it was also known for the mystical and magical powers that many Egyptians possessed. We see this from the fact that some of the signs HaShem gave Moshe were easily copied by the Egyptian magicians.
So if the common folk possessed such powers, then their king must by definition be an all mighty super-king, gifted with above-human powers. In fact, a "god!" Pharaoh himself knew better, but his power over his people was based on this myth. So much so, that our tradition tells us that Moshe was sent to speak to Pharaoh when he was excusing himself by the Nile - far out of sight from the people, who would wonder why a god needed to go to the bathroom.
As slaves in Egypt, the Children of Israel must have been affected by this commonly accepted notion. Moshe's task was all the harder to convince Bnei Yisrael that there was only one true HaShem - and it certainly wasn't Pharaoh. HaShem wanted to show this to Bnei Yisrael, as well as to the Egyptians. HaShem would prove that not only was Pharaoh not a god, he wasn't even on par with regular humans. Humans have a choice. They can make decisions. When they cannot decide and act for themselves, they become sub-human. Rather like a slave!
By hardening Pharaoh's heart, and by showing the world that Pharaoh truly wished to get rid of this very problematic people, and yet against his will he refused again and again to let them go, even though each refusal brought with it more terrifying plagues - what better way was there to make this point?
Pharaoh wanted to consider the fight against HaShem a battle on equal terms. HaShem humiliated Pharaoh by proving the exact opposite. This wasn't a punishment. This was HaShem publicly exerting His will and power over His people, for His people. Imagine how proud the Children of Israel felt. Imagine how great we will feel when HaShem does the same for us.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,