In the portion of Vaera things have gone from bad to worse for the Israelite slaves, but God reassures Moses that the redemption will begin. We read about Moses' staff turning into a serpent and the first seven plagues.

Another Voice

Vaera – Barbara Spectre

Barbara Spectre is the founding Director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish studies in Sweden, and previously taught at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. She published, together with Noam Zion, A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration. She received the 2007 Max Fisher Prize for Jewish Education.

"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart". What a theological quagmire is unleashed by this pronouncement! God reveals to Moses that He will prevent any relenting on the part of Pharaoh until the full series of plagues can run their course, thus insuring that the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egypt will be understood as miraculous.

The implications of this statement are dire: if God is hardening Pharaoh's heart, does this not in essence mean that He is denying Pharaoh the free will by which to chose his own course? And further, what about the suffering of the Egyptian people that ensues as a result of the plagues... by hardening Pharaoh's heart is not God causing extraneous agony to an entire people?  What sort of God would manipulate the human theatre in such a way?

The "hardening of the heart" has constituted a major challenge to interpreters throughout the ages. Some go down the path of claiming that this statement is essentially descriptive, rather than proscriptive. In other words, God is describing what happens when one habituates complacency and cruelty  - one's heart indeed hardens. But perhaps we should confront the "hardening of the heart" literally, with all its full and brutal implications. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to stand in front of this "God of History" with His mysterious divine plan of which we are but the willing and often befuddled agents.

Perhaps, if only momentarily, we should abandon the basically Aristotelian notion of divine perfection, and allow ourselves the consider, if only fleetingly, the concept of a God who can anger, who can reconsider, who can need... a God who is capable of love, with all the vulnerable implications that follow.

There is good news lurking in such considerations. If God hardens Pharaoh's heart, then it follows that He acknowledges the possibility (which He in this case wants to obstruct) of true and radical change... surely a revolutionary concept in the context of a fated and controlled ancient world.

And perhaps taking these words at face value would also afford us the possibility of considering the stark contrast between Moses and Pharaoh. Both (especially given the wonderful interpretation of the film The Prince of Egypt that the two were raised as brothers) were afforded the insulation of palace life. And indeed, we witness the hardening of one's heart that results from such privilege. The first nine plagues simply don't touch Pharaoh. It is only when the tenth plague penetrates his household and smites his first born that he cries out. In contrast, Moses voluntarily "goes out" and sees the hardship of the children of Israel. Although he has led a similarly insular life, although suffering does not touch him personally, he sets the paradigm for empathy – the ability to feel for the other even when one has not experienced a comparable occurrence.

Although God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Moses has defied this 'natural' process.  He has been truly touched by the suffering of others - suffering other than his own - and it is his response, even more than God's interference, that truly sets the course of history on its wondrous way.

Another Voice - Michael Grant

Many years ago, I read in Terry Pratchett's Pyramids: "All self-respecting river kingdoms have vast supernatural plagues, but the best the Old Kingdom had been able to achieve... was the Plague of Frog. It was quite a big frog, however, and got into the air ducts and kept everyone awake for weeks."

This joke, surprisingly, has a basis in midrash. Exodus 8:2, describing the Second Plague, says that "the frog", singular, came up over Egypt. Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rabbi Akiva to explain that there was initially just one giant frog, until the Egyptians hit it, causing it to burst apart into swarms of little ones.

Really, the Torah verse just reflects Hebrew idiom: the same idiom is used in ch. 16 to describe the (singular) quail coming up and covering the camp. (Though no wonder the Israelites turned so fractious if they had to put up with a giant quail upon their camp). Still, I'd love to know how Pratchett learned of this midrash.