Rav Baruch Weintraub
Former Rosh Kollel in Toronto (2011-2014)
“And Egypt pursed them, and entered [the sea] after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and charioteers, to the middle of the sea.” (Sh’mot 14:23)
This sentence raises a serious question: How did the Egyptians enter the middle of the sea without realizing the danger they were courting? Did they not witness the plagues in Egypt and know the might of G-d? And now that they saw Him split Yam Suf, should they not have worried that the sea might return to its former state?
A straightforward answer is presented in an earlier passage (Sh’mot 14:17), “I will harden the heart of Egypt and they will enter after them”. G-d hardens the heart of Egypt, and so they do not fear entry into the sea. But what is the meaning of this ‘hardening of the heart’? Does G-d meddle directly in Pharaoh’s thoughts, or does it happen in some other way? Of course, this question is subsumed in the broader question of Pharaoh’s freedom of choice from the time G-d began to harden his heart, during the plagues, through the ‘strengthening’ of his heart mentioned here. Presumably, one cannot punish a sinner who lacks the ability to choose freely, so why was Pharaoh punished?
Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 6) explains that Pharaoh was only punished for his earlier sins. Other early commentators, including S’forno, have suggested that G-d did not force Pharaoh to keep the Jews as slaves but only strengthened his ability to withstand the emotional toll of the plagues he suffered, so that he could repent independently.
Perhaps one could suggest a third approach, though. In Moby Dick (Chapter 41), Herman Melville described Captain Ahab’s insane desire to catch the whale, writing,
“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. Ahab … pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
The insanity of Ahab and Pharaoh flowed from the human inclination to focus on matters of minor significance instead of the big picture. When this inclination evolved to dominate their being, it became obsession, and they unwittingly lost the whole while battling for a fraction. This is the charge of Pharaoh’s advisers, “Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not nullification of his freedom; G-d only allowed his natural psychological vulnerability to sway him.
G-d set up the war with Pharaoh as a matter of principle – Pharaoh’s lack of legitimate ownership of G-d’s Jews – and Pharaoh homed in on that to the exclusion of all else. Pharaoh believed that freeing his slaves was not an ethical obligation and he could not be compelled to do so. He failed to perceive a greater picture: G-d directs the world; G-d had chosen to remove the Jews from Egypt; Man is created in the image designed by G-d and ought not be enslaved to another. Pharaoh only perceived the details he chose to perceive, and in the end he saw the dry land in the centre but not the water waiting to close upon him. Even if he saw the water, perhaps he told himself, “To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (Moby Dick, Chap. 135)
And so G-d ‘hardened’ the heart of Pharaoh. Hashem could have chosen another way to remove the Jews from Egypt; perhaps a dialogue could have led to peaceful emancipation of the Jews. Instead, Hashem chose the pedagogic path of a battle over principle, and Pharaoh stood to defend his principles, and so Egypt came to know “that I am G-d” (Shemot 14:4),
A world view that does not include the Will of G-d is flawed, and must lead to ethical error, and eventually to the depths of a sea of darkness and hatred. As the people who survived Yam Suf, we should always elevate ourselves when determining our path. We must take into consideration not only fragments of reality, but also the root principle that emerged with us from Yam Suf: “G-d will reign forever.” (Sh’mot 15:18)