Torah from Around the World #306

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Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, former President of

World Union for Progressive Judaism

(WUPJ) and Rabbi Emeritus of

Congregation Beth Israel

, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

“Why didn’t God Just Soften Pharaoh’s Heart?

“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart … (and he) will not listen to you.” (Exodus 7:3-4)

I vividly remember the first introduction to Judaism class I taught as a young Rabbi. When we discussed the Exodus, a woman demanded to know: “What kind of an evil God would harden Pharaoh’s heart? If God is so powerful, why not simply soften Pharaoh’s heart so that he would give up the slaves willingly?”

It would have been lovely. Imagine: Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

And Pharaoh answered, “Certainly, Moses. You know, as I think about it, it was not very nice of me to enslave your people and treat them so harshly. Of course, I shall let them go.”

Yes, it would be wonderful if the world worked that way, but Torah often tells us more about the way the world is than the way it should be.

In the real world, tyrants from Pharaoh to Hitler to the savage terrorists of today’s world–do not give up their power without a colossal struggle.

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war–a boxing match if you will–between gods. The deities could not be more different.

In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by building monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if over- population becomes an issue (Exodus 1:15ff), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God whose highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity. God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerless of society, the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused, and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Yes, it would be lovely if God simply softened Pharaoh’s heart, but life does not work that way. Moreover, the vital lessons of the Exodus story and the moral imperatives they impose upon us would not find such clear, dramatic, and instructive illustration.

Hardening Pharaoh’s heart does not mean that God literally makes Pharaoh act in an evil way. It means that Pharaoh, like all of us, has free will. From a psychological viewpoint, the more one turns away from the voice of conscience (read the voice of God), the easier it is to resist that voice.


Studies in Shemot

, Nehama Leibowitz compares the unchecked acts that evil Pharaoh committed, to those of Macbeth. At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong. He certainly fears laying hands on his king, Duncan. With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience exercises less and less control over his treacherous impulses.

When in Act 3, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her reluctant husband to kill the king, voices her reservations about Macbeth’s ruthless reign of terror, Macbeth responds, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (Act 3, Scene 2, Line 55). In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own. Macbeth can no longer control himself. So it was with Pharaoh.

In rabbinic literature, belief in God and the study of the Torah align to help us fight the inclination to do evil. Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said, “The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day. It seeks to kill him. If God does not help, a person could not overcome it” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b).

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to fight the inclination to do evil. God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort. Rabbi Akiva (second century CE) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way: “At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and at last it is like a rope of a ship” (Genesis Rabbah 22:6).

In other words, when we persist in evil or when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than we can control.

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. God allowed Pharaoh to continue on the course that he had chosen. God allows all of us to do the same.

In recent days horrific terrorist acts make us painfully aware of the hardened hearts of those who reject the very existence of a Jewish state and the very existence of Jews on the face of the earth.

In the face of such evil, many of us pray with the psalmist: “O my God … pursue them with your tempest, and terrify them with your storm.” (Psalm 83:14, 16).

But as we learn as early as the story of Cain and Abel, God wants us to act righteously (Genesis 4:7-8), but God does not make us. To thwart evil we must join our actions to God’s desire.

Just as God enlisted Moses to fight against the evil Pharaoh, I believe God enlists us to fight the evil in the world today. To expect God to unilaterally soften the hearts of ISIS, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups is unrealistic.

We may never achieve the world of which Micah (4:4) dreamed when “everyone will sit under our vines and under our fig trees with none to make us afraid,” but we must never cease to do what we can to bring that day closer.

About the Author


His first book,

What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives

has been translated into German and Russian. His second book,


has just been published with English and German in the same volume as a gesture of reconciliation between Progressive Judaism and the German people.

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