Parashat Va’era: How We’ve Evolved Since The Exodus

Parashat Va’era: How We’ve Evolved Since The Exodus

(delivered by Maayan Lev on January 20, 2023)

This week’s parashah is Va’era. This Torah portion is one that many people know well, even if not by name, as it contains seven of the Ten Plagues, and is often depicted on screen in movies such as The Prince of Egypt.  But I know this parashah well for another reason. It is my bar mitzvah portion.

I confess that my memories of my bar mitzvah are a bit of a blur. I can still recite the first few aliyot from memory, but I have no idea what I spoke about in my d’var Torah. And so, this seems as good a time as any to revise my d’var Torah from 15 years ago.

The thing that stands out to me when I read this chapter today is the same thing that many people often talk about when they discuss the Ten Plagues. And that is: that Pharaoh never had a chance.

Even before the first plague even took place, G!d hardens Pharaoh’s heart.[1] In fact, this Torah portion refers to Pharaoh’s hardened heart 15 times!

Moreover, Moses doesn’t ask Pharaoh to let the people go directly before G!d sends the first plague. Why doesn’t Moses give Pharaoh an ultimatum first? Perhaps it’s because Moses didn’t want to spoil the “big show” that’s to come. Or, perhaps it’s because with Pharaoh’s heart already hardened before the plague began, the ultimatum would have been a moot point.

Nevertheless, ultimatums eventually do occur. Pharaoh is seemingly given every chance to do the right thing, but he never does. Sometimes, it seems like he wants to do the right thing, but just isn’t able to. After the plague of hail, Pharaoh admits that he stands guilty before HaShem, and he begs for mercy. But Moses insists that even though G!d will stop the hail, he knows that Pharaoh does not yet truly fear HaShem, hinting that there will still be more plagues to come.[2] But actually, Pharaoh did fear HaShem, at least at certain moments. After the plague of lice, Pharaoh agrees to let the people go,.in order to worship G!d in the wilderness, so long as they then return. And Pharaoh says to Moses, “When you go pray to HaShem, ‘,הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדי’ ‘Plead [with G!d] on my behalf’.[3]

Of course, Pharaoh soon took back his word, but the text makes it clear that it only happened because of his heavy heart. It makes me wonder, for all the times that HaShem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, was his heart getting harder every time, or was it only necessary to do this repeatedly because his heart had to be re-hardened after each plague softened it and reverted it to its “normal” state?

As I said, Pharaoh never had a chance. This is known not only to G!d and the readers, but even to Moses. G!d already tells Moses exactly what is going to happen towards the end of last week’s Torah portion.

At the Burning Bush, G!d tells Moses: “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen [Pharaoh’s] heart so he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says HaShem: Israel is My first-born child…I told you to let Israel go, but you refused. Now, I will slay your first-born child!”[4]

All of the plagues were planned, up to the 10th, and Moses was in on it. He knew that all those times he would go before Pharaoh, it was really just for show. And that begs some questions:

  • First, why didn’t G-d just skip straight to the 10th plague if the others didn’t really matter?
  • And secondly, shouldn’t it trouble us that G!d keeps hardening Pharaoh’s heart?
  • Who is more stubborn here? Pharaoh or G!d?
  • Is this the version of G!d that we want to believe in?

Some of our greatest commentators have recognized the issues at stake here, and felt the need to weigh in, trying to find reasons to put us at ease. Here is what Rashi[5] said regarding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as portrayed in Exodus 7:3, which was before the first plague.  Speaking on behalf of G!d, Rashi states, “Since [Pharaoh] has wickedly resisted Me, it is clear to Me that the idolatrous nations find no spiritual satisfaction in whole-heartedly repenting, so it is better that Pharaoh’s heart should be hardened. Only through witnessing My signs will he recognize My Divine power.”

Essentially, this is the only way Pharaoh will learn. Rashi also cites Midrash Tanchuma, saying that, actually, Pharaoh did have a chance. For the first five plagues, the text states that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, but not that G!d was the one responsible. Only when Pharaoh’s heart was hardened during the final five plagues does the text inform us that G!d was the one hardening it.”[6]

Unfortunately, I cannot accept Rashi’s words. If the first half is true, it is not in the spirit of good interfaith relations. And as for his statement about G!d not being the One hardening Pharaoh’s heart until the final five plagues, it is clear that it was G!d the whole time, as G!d had already outlined the plan of hardening Pharaoh’s heart to Moses.

In his commentary on that same verse (Exodus 7:3), Nachmanides[7] states: “I will answer the question that all readers want to ask; ‘If G!d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, what is Pharaoh’s true sin?” Nachmanides lists a few reasons, some of them quite similar to Rashi’s. Additionally, he offers: “It is that Pharaoh had already committed unspeakable evil against the Israelites by enslaving them. After this point, he lost the right to repent, for he was already beyond redemption.” For this reason, Nachmanides asserts that G!d reminded Moses to neither pity Pharaoh nor show him mercy.[8]

Depending on how you see things, this could be a great reason. Perhaps some people truly are beyond redemption.

  • But is this sufficient reason to make the entire Egyptian people suffer?
  • Isn’t it enough that we were freed?
  • Why does it have to be this way?

Rambam[9] concurs with Nachmanides, noting in his Shemonah P’rakim that G!d punished Pharaoh by taking away his right to choose. That is to say, Pharaoh no longer had free will. And why was it acceptable for G!d to take away Pharaoh’s free will? Because Pharaoh had acted so wickedly before, when he had free will, that he no longer deserved to have it anymore! Moreover, the true punishment for Pharaoh was that Pharaoh had to endure the knowledge that it was no longer in his power to choose.

Maimonides continued, “G!d may punish an individual by preventing them from choosing a certain action, and [the individual] knows it, but is unable to struggle with [their] soul and drive it back to make [a] certain choice.” In this case, the choice Pharaoh knew he was powerless to make was to let the people go.[10]

There are other explanations for the plagues as well, such as each plague being an insult to a different Egyptian deity. Another common explanation, as described by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l), is that the Egyptians believed that after death, individuals had to stand trial for their deeds. If their heart weighed less than a feather after death, then their spirit could go to Aaru, which was the Egyptians’ heavenly paradise. On the other hand, if their heart was heavier than a feather, their heart would be devoured by the goddess Ammit, and they would be condemned. For this reason, every time HaShem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, G!d was reminding Pharaoh that his heart was far heavier than a feather.[11] This makes all the more sense if Pharaoh himself was aware of this hardening of the heart, as Maimonides suggests.

At the end of the day though, I choose to reject all of these views!

Why does G!d truly feel the need to go through with all ten plagues, even though Pharaoh’s fate is already sealed? And, if G-d wanted to, couldn’t the Israelites have been freed through only positive miracles? Our Torah portion gives 2 explicit reasons, as HaShem instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh:

I could have [destroyed you.] Nevertheless, I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My might, and in order that My Name may be recounted throughout the world.[12]

In essence, G!d wants to be glorified. G!d wants the entire world to hear of every single plague. If these were the words of a human, they would sound very stubborn.

Kabbalah acknowledges that there are many aspects of HaShem, and it is only natural that not all sides should be our favorite. Still, I wanted to find another way to look at things.

And so, to redeem my bar mitzvah portion in my own eyes, I turned to a book that came out, quite fittingly, when I was 13-years old: The Battle of the Labyrinth, the fourth book in a young adult science fiction series called Percy Jackson & The Olympians, by Rick Riordan.[13] It touches on neither Jewish nor Egyptian legends, but on Greek ones.

In this book, Percy, the son of the ocean deity, Poseidon, meets his half-brother Antaeus, who has committed unsettling acts, all for the glorification of their shared father Poseidon. Percy later asks Poseidon, “Is this really what you stand for? Why do you need all of Antaeus’s violence just for your own glorification?”

And Poseidon responds that he had nothing to do with it. He says to Percy, “The way demigods act in the name of their godly parents…well, it usually says more about them than it does about us.”

This is my answer to the issue regarding Pharaoh’s heart. The Torah is indeed a godly document, but it was still written by humans. Depending on how you view Pharaoh, he either died as a villain, al-chilul Ha-Shem (for desecrating G!d’s name), or he died as a martyr, al kiddush Ha-Shem (for the sake of sanctifying G!d’s name) through the plagues that were brought for the sake of glorifying G!d.

I view Pharaoh as something of a mixed bag. To me, he was undeniably a villain earlier in his life, but later on, he was likely tortured by the loss of his free will. Perhaps he was indeed beyond redemption, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to be robbed of his right to do the right thing in the end, regardless of whether he would have been rewarded for this partial repentance.

So does that mean the Torah has an unjust message? Not at all! Like the portion says, this was all done for the sake of making G!d’s name great. It’s just that at the time this was written, people had a different idea than we do today about what it means to glorify HaShem. We don’t want to edit the Torah to make it more modern, because its holiness comes in large part due to its fixed text. But it’s still important to remember that back then, we glorified G!d’s destruction of our enemies, whereas today, we often prefer to glorify G!d through recalling acts of Divine mercy.

I believe that the real slavery was the idea that we once believed interfaith relations to be a zero-sum game; that the only way to show others that our religion was legitimate was to tear down other religions and show their followers that they were wrong.

We live and we learn. Keeping all that in mind, my message tonight actually comes from Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for war and a time for peace.”[14]

Even if we believe that violence is sometimes a necessary means to conflict resolution, there nevertheless comes a point when it no longer advances our goals. We should always be searching for that moment of peace. There is actually great glory in knowing when to show restraint.

Shabbat shalom.


[1] Exodus 7:13.

[2] Exodus 9:27-30.

[3] Exodus 8:24.

[4] Exodus 4:21-23

[5] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) was the great medieval biblical and Talmudic commentator. His commentaries serve as the starting point even today for all Jewish study of both the Bible and the Talmud.

[6] Magid, S. (n.d.). The Ethical Problem of Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart. The Retrieved January 16, 2023, from

[7] Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270) is also known as Nachmanides or by the acronym Ramban. He was a rabbi, philosopher, kabbalist, biblical scholar, and physician, who lived most of his life in Girona (in Catalonia), before moving to Jerusalem toward the end of his life.

[8] Magid, op cit.

[9] Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204) is also known as Maimonides or by the acronym Rambam (not to be confused with Ramban. See footnote 7 above). Maimonides was a prominent physician (the personal physician to Saladin), astronomer, and scholar who wrote enduring monumental works, including his Mishneh Torah, a work of Jewish law, and Guide to the Perplexed, a philosophical work.

[10] Magid, op cit.

[11] Sacks, J. (2020, January 23). The Weighing of the Heart (Vaera, Covenant & Conversation 5780). The Times Of Israel. Retrieved January 17, 2023, from

[12] Exodus 9:15-16.

[13] Riordan, R. (2008). The Battle of the Labyrinth. Disney/Hyperion.

[14] Ecclesiastes 3:8

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