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Understanding Egypt

by | Apr 7, 2006

"I will make Pharaoh’s heart hard, and will thus have the opportunity to display many miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt; this is why Pharaoh will not pay attention to you. But then I will display My power against Egypt, and with great acts of judgment I will bring forth from Egypt My hosts ― My people, the children of Israel. When I display My power and bring the children of Israel out from among them, Egypt will know that I am God." (Exodus 7:3-5)

Most of us are so familiar with these words that we don’t pause to consider their true meaning, but this passage presents many difficulties. In essence God was telling Moses, "Do not expect much of Pharaoh, because I will harden his heart and so prevent him from listening to you. The purpose of this exercise is to inculcate the people of Egypt with the knowledge that I am God."

The first surprising element is the extent of God’s concern for the spiritual state of the Egyptian people. If asked, "Why did God bring the ten plagues upon Egypt?" the immediate response of a Jew possessing even minimal knowledge of his heritage would surely be, "Obviously, for the Jewish people’s sake." The Torah teaches us otherwise, stating clearly here that the real purpose of the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh ― which was predestined to bring ruin to Pharaoh’s people and country ― was to heighten the Egyptian people’s awareness of God.

In order to elevate the Egyptians’ spiritual state, the Jewish people’s redemption was delayed a full year, their suffering prolonged, and the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai ― the single most important event in the history of the universe ― was likewise postponed. God deemed it more important at that time for Pharaoh and his people to undergo the experience of the ten plagues…

Why this broad concern for Egypt’s religious attitudes? What righteous deed had the Egyptian people performed to deserve such consideration? As far as we know, their favorite pastime was to drown Jewish infants in the Nile and brutally enslave innocent men, women, and children.

An important principle is manifest in this concern for Egypt’s spirituality. Unlike other religions, Judaism promotes a universal relationship between God and man. All human beings, regardless of race, nationality or color, have the potential to form a meaningful relationship with God. One need not be Jewish in order to fulfill the Divine will and earn eternal life in the World to Come.

For this reason the Torah dictates that attempts should be made initially to discourage prospective converts. "Why convert to Judaism?" we must challenge someone who wishes to convert. "You can have an existentially meaningful relationship with God as a gentile. Why encumber your life with the myriad restrictions and obligations God imposes on Jews? Remain a gentile and lead a virtuous life, and you will reap reward in both this world and the next."

The "chosenness" of the Jewish people is often misunderstood ― it does not mean that the Jewish people have a monopoly on God; any human being can serve Him. The special mission of the Jew is to serve as God’s representatives in this world and to give Him a "good reputation." The nations of the world instinctively look to the Jew for justice, truth, and a deeper comprehension of God’s master plan. Naturally, they expect him to adhere to a higher moral code than the rest of mankind.

In essence, Jews are God’s ambassadors in this world. When a nn-Jew commits a sin in public, he alone bears the consequences. In contrast, when a Jew sins publicly, he is not the only one affected ― through his sin God’s esteem is diminished among people and His Name is desecrated.

As the most advanced society of its day, Egypt represented the world at large. For this reason God set out to elevate the Egyptian conception of God, through the experiences of the Jewish people. Thus the ultimate role of the Jews in Egypt was to bring the world to a clearer understanding of God.

This passage also may raise in our minds the question of fairness. The principle of reward and punishment in life is based on the supposition that man is free to choose between right and wrong. Yet the Torah clearly states that God intervened and hardened Pharaoh’s heart, effectively removing Pharaoh’s freedom of choice. Why, then, did God deem it fitting to punish Pharaoh? Pharaoh did not choose to do evil; the outcome of the entire episode was fixed from the outset. Pharaoh was merely a puppet, an automaton acting mechanically in a predetermined sequence of events. It seems unfair to punish him for his evil actions, when he had absolutely no choice in the matter.

The issue may be clarified through two different approaches.

The commentator Seforno (16th century Italy) explains that God never actually removed Pharaoh’s free will. There is a subtle distinction between hardening a person’s heart and taking away his ability to choose altogether.

There are situations in life that influence one’s decision-making process. Theoretically, a thief in possession of stolen merchandise could choose to turn himself in and return the goods to their rightful owners, but the chances that he will choose to follow such a course of action on his own are quite slim.

Imagine, however, how that thief would react if he heard approaching police sirens. The chances of his deciding to turn himself in would increase dramatically. And suppose that the blinding glare of spotlights mounted on surrounding roofs would zero in on his window, followed by the warning: "Come out with your hands up ― we’ve got you surrounded."

Faced with the choice of dying in a hail of bullets or turning himself in, a healthy-minded criminal would choose the latter option. He would still have the freedom to choose, of course, but the extenuating circumstances of his predicament make it far easier for him to make the morally correct choice.

Likewise, the scales of any human being’s decision-making processes are hardly ever perfectly balanced. Rarely does one make a completely objective choice. Such traits as greed, avarice, and lust spur people to sin. It is safe to assume that most people who walk into a bank do not deliberate whether or not to brandish a pistol and stage a holdup, for the simple reason that they have been conditioned against committing such a brazen crime. But how would most people react if they discovered the bank teller mistakenly gave them an extra hundred dollars? Would they immediately rush back to the bank and return the money, or would they surreptitiously find the nearest exit, thinking, "These banks are not so honest themselves…" Even most morally upright people will entertain such thoughts; it is a perfectly normal reaction to hesitate before doing the right thing in a situation like this one.

A righteous person who exercises his free will can overcome the tipped scales of his decision-making process and bring himself to return the money to the bank teller. Here, too, every individual has the freedom to choose, but the extenuating circumstances of his particular situation make it easy for him to make the morally wrong choice.

Pharaoh did not wish to emancipate the Jews, but then he was faced with the problems of his country’s water turning to blood and nine other plagues that would devastate his country. Threatened with such complete and utter destruction, the possibility that he would exercise his free will and rule over his own decision-making process was remote indeed. Any person of sound mind would immediately have said to Moses, "Take your Jews and get out."

This is precisely what God wanted to prevent; He wanted Pharaoh to choose, not react to external stimuli. God accomplished this by making Pharaoh impervious to the devastating effects of the plagues, thereby balancing the scales of Pharaoh’s decision-making process and consistently giving him a fifty-fifty choice.

Seforno explains that God did not remove Pharaoh’s free will; He actually enhanced Pharaoh’s freedom by keeping his ability to choose in perfect balance, in spite of the colossal effect that the plagues had on the rest of the Egyptians.

Maimonides offers a second approach to understanding why God punished Pharaoh, despite the fact that He had hardened his heart. Admittedly God removed Pharaoh’s freedom to choose, but there is nothing unusual about this ― it is a natural phenomenon that all of us experience daily.

To illustrate this, let us return to our thief. Before he broke into a home for the first time in his life, he probably experienced a severe inner struggle between his evil inclination and his conscience. We can imagine him tossing and turning in his bed on the night preceding the crime, bathed in a cold sweat, desperately agonizing over his decision: Should I do it or not?

The second time was much easier. He may have had some nagging doubts, but nothing so severe as what he had experienced on the previous occasion. On the night preceding his tenth job, he slept peacefully and dreamed sweet dreams. He had conditioned himself to think that there is nothing wrong with his way of life. At this point, he would even turn down a good steady job if it were offered to him.

Life is habit-forming; at a certain point, a person chooses not to exercise his free will any longer. This is what happened to Pharaoh. He grew accustomed to his evil lifestyle and stopped exercising his freedom to choose. In effect, God told him, "Because you have relinquished your ability to choose, I will take away your free will altogether."

Reprinted with permission from InnerNet Magazine