Does One Crime Justify Another?

Understanding why God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

Commentary on Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 10:1 presents a theological problem on two levels. First, if God is the agent of Pharaoh’s behavior, what does that imply about Pharaoh’s free will? Second, if God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate God’s power, we must ask: At what price the Israelites’ liberation? Indeed, the ultimate result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness is the murder of every first-born Egyptian male. Even if we consider this to be retributive justice, payback for Pharaoh’s earlier order to kill all newborn Hebrew males, we still must ponder: Does one heinous crime justify another? And how do we come to terms with killing innocent children?

Commentators, equally bothered by this thorny moral dilemma, have provided inspired interpretations. With regard to the question of free will, some interpreters note that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Only afterward does God take over, starting with the sixth plague (9:12), suggesting that Pharaoh has foregone the chance to operate independently. Modern psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes, “The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action … there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened … that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” This is an astute insight into human behavior, but it begs the question of the text’s plain meaning, which is that God causes Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

With Adversity Comes Strength

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart might also be viewed as a paradigm for what Fran Burgess calls the “transformative power of adversity.” According to this view, Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance is the condition necessary for Moses and the Israelites to emerge from their straits (the Hebrew name for Egypt, mitzrayim, is very close to the Hebrew for “straits,” metzarim). Indeed, it often takes facing overwhelming odds to make radical change. As Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong said, “Before cancer, I just lived. Now I live strong.” Pharaoh thus serves as a tool for the Israelites’ psychological and moral development. However keen, this interpretation too satisfies only on the level of metaphor.

An Evil God

Perhaps the most satisfactory approach is to keep the theological problems ever-present. In The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (1995), Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that the liberation story of the Israelites, what she calls the “master narrative,” gives rise to “counter-narratives” that throw the justification of God’s triumphal power into question. Indeed, as Zornberg argues, the master narrative of God as loving and benevolent redeemer of the Israelites is challenged by the killing of the Egyptians’ first-born, including “the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon” (12:29). This prompts a counter-narrative from the perspective of the plague’s victims that asks: What sin could the babies and the captives possibly have committed to deserve this punishment? The answer posits an evil God. This narrative appears again later, in the story of the Golden Calf, when Moses convinces God not to murder the Israelites for their transgression, arguing that otherwise, the Egyptian story will prevail: “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he delivered them” (32:12). Although the Midrash attempts to silence and “neutralize” potentially heretical answers to such queries, Zornberg maintains that “the Torah, even God’s quoted words, gives rise to interpretations that radically contradict its own master-narrative, and that cannot, moreover, be totally repudiated by its accredited expositors” (p, 143).

For Zornberg, an alternative for dealing with the dissonance between narrative and counter-narrative is “the model of endless questioning, in which the answer does not totally silence the questioner” (p. 143). In fact, implicit and explicit questions play an important role in this parashah. God mandates that the story of the Exodus be told in response to children’s queries: “And when your children ask you…you shall say…” (l2:26-27). This is the basis for the Passover seder’s custom of the Four Questions. Further, two more verses from this parashah and one from Deuteronomy instruct us to answer our children’s questions about the Exodus. The rabbis understood all these verses as referring to four kinds of children, the Haggadah’s Four Sons, each with varying aptitudes, each eliciting a different perspective on the narrative: the Wise Son (Deuteronomy 6:20-21), the Wicked Son (Exodus 12:26), the Simple Son (13:14), and the One Who Is Unable to Ask (13:8).

Women and the Exodus

Through questions, we might call forth another counter-narrative: the experience of women during the exodus and its subsequent retelling. Noting that the traditional Haggadah assumes a conversation between a father and four sons, contemporary feminist Haggadot fill in for the absence of women’s voices. The Ma’yan Haggadah, for example, includes the Four Daughters. The daughter “in search of a usable past” asks, “Why did Moses say at Sinai, ‘Go not near a woman,’ addressing only men, as if preparation for revelation was not meant for us, as well?” The daughter “who wants to erase her difference” wonders about the importance of women’s issues. The daughter “who does not know that she has a place at the table” asks, “What is this?” And the daughter “who asks no questions is told: “From the moment Yocheved, Miriam, and the midwives questioned Pharaoh’s edict until today, every question we ask helps us leave Egypt a little farther behind” (Tamara Cohen, Sue Levi Elwell, and Ronnie Horn, eds., The Journey Continues: Ma’yan Passover Haggadah, 1997).

Just as the women defied Pharaoh, so we too as readers must confront and challenge troubling aspects of our sacred narratives. The persistent hardening of Pharaoh’s heart results in the Israelites’ night of redemption, but we must never forget that this same night was one of horror for the Egyptians. We must continue to ask the questions that preserve our awareness of the Other’s story. Did the Israelites hear the tzaakah (cry) of the Egyptians (12:30)? Did it remind them of their own cry–the tzaakah in 3:7 which brought God’s attention to their plight? Year after year, as we recall at our seder table the wonders God performed for us, we must remember the price the Other paid for our liberation.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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