Every time I read this Parasha, I feel perplexed and fascinated by the behavior of Pharaoh. Our Parasha begins with the eighth plague: locust. When the plague comes, Pharaoh, for the first time admits that he was wrong and he says: “I have sinned before HaShem, your God … and now, please forgive my sin only this time, and pray to HaShem your God, to take away this mortal [plague].” At that moment Moshe prayed to HaShem and the locusts left Egypt. But once free from the locusts, Pharaoh again changes his mind and refuses to let the people of Israel out of Egypt.
What’s going on? Why does Pharaoh behave in such an irrational, suicidal way?
The first is a theological explanation. HaShem intervenes in the ‘heart’ of Pharaoh. It influences his decision and inspires his “stubbornness”. According to Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel, HaShem did this, not to compromise Pharaoh’s free will but to preserve it. Let me explain: If God would reveal Himself to us, and we could somehow see and feel His Presence beyond any doubt, would anyone dare not observing Shabbat? Would anyone even think about eating a non-Kasher food, and challenging Him, so to speak, face to face? If our Emuna (faith in HaShem) was absolute, we could not choose to do or not to do His will. A TOTAL certainty of His existence would turn us into robots (or “angels”, but this is for another discussion), incapable of disobeying a Divine order. In this sense, the invisibility of HaShem, His deliberate concealment, is what allows us to maintain our ability to disobey, and consequently, to retain the merit of obeying Him. Back to Pharaoh. Pharaoh was the only person who knew, because Moshe reported him, when each plague would begin and when it would end. The evidence of Divine intervention, and thus “existence”, was overwhelming to Pharaoh, undeniable. Technically, Pharaoh should have become a robot, deprived of free will, unable to disobey, ergo, “free of responsibility.” Therefore, in order to preserve Pharaoh’s ability to choose, and make him accountable for his YES or his NO, HaShem intervenes in his thoughts making his “heart” more stubborn and uncompromising. And so, his ability to choose returns to a balanced 50/50, and Pharaoh is again responsible for what he chooses. Maimonides explains that this type of intervention in human thought is not the rule. Pharaoh’s case was an exception.
The second explanation has to do with a psychological phenomenon, which can be seen, for example, in the typical behavior of a gambling addict. Sometimes an addict reaches “a point of no return.” At that moment he exhibits a self-destructive, almost suicidal behavior. Example: A man goes to a Casino. He bet and loses all the money he had. His entire salary. What can this individual do now? Can he go back to his home and explain to his wife that their entire salary has gone? Instead, he chooses another alternative, unknowingly heading towards a point of no return. He ask for a loan and pawns his wedding ring, and thus he hopes to recover al least some of his money. But luck is not on his side that night. And now, apart from his salary he also lost his ring. Now, for sure he cannot go home and face his wife… He feels obligated to recover something. So the man pawns his car, and that fateful night turnes for him into a downward spiral of self-destruction.
I believe we can also explain the behavior of Pharaoh in this way. After the fifth plague, for example, after Pharaoh bet and lost against HaShem, he could no longer go back and say to his people “Well, now let’s let them go.” Why? Because five plagues already meant a lot of suffering and enormous material losses for his subjects. If Pharaoh allows the Jews to leave, he losses whatever remains of his prestige and credibility. Pharaoh knows that he has reached a point of no return. But he decides to continue gambling, although he knows that he is going to lose…. It is possible, I believe, that in addition to Divine intervention, the human factor also influenced Pharaoh’s behavior and refusal.
I think that what happened to Pharaoh is a great lesson for all of us: 1. We must identify possible points of no return, in any area of our lives. 2. We must obviously avoid falling into one of these downward spirals of self-destruction. 3. And if we ever, recklessly, find ourselves in such a spiral, we must know that it is better to return humbled but in one piece, than to keep running towards the cliff.