The Fall of a World Leader
By Boruch Merkur

When you’re in a position of high office, you are in a position of high influence; you are a role-model, and whether you like it or not, your actions have sweeping ramifications.

There is a certain world leader who is currently in the public eye. His every action is under intense scrutiny. We have been reading about him a lot these days, and we find him and his leadership in a real crisis.

And just when it looks like all hope is lost, just when it seems that it is in his best interest to cut his losses and come clean, and pour his heart out to the world and before G-d Alm-ghty, instead he "hardens his heart," buttressing himself in a fortress of denial in attempt to move on and continue in his ways.

(You have probably guessed by now that I am talking about Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the antagonist of this week’s parsha, Parshas Bo.)

Even after suffering devastation at the hand of the plagues, Pharaoh refused to comply with Moshe Rabbeinu’s demand, "let my people go!" preferring instead to deny the Jewish people their freedom and to deny the obvious fact that the plagues were unleashed by none other than the Alm-ghty Himself, as he is informed by the experts, the royal sorcerers, "it is the finger of G-d." But "Pharaoh’s heart was hardened," and he did not let the Jewish people go.

Not only did Pharaoh’s obstinacy lead to his own downfall, but it led to the collapse of his entire empire. On account of Pharaoh’s leadership the stature of the entire nation of Egypt, the era’s undisputed superpower, lay in ruins.


Now, it is well known that G-d is not one to take NO for an answer, and no one got to know this as well as Pharaoh. Yet we see that Pharaoh was still willing to take Him on. So we are led to ask: what got into Pharaoh’s thick skull?!

Maybe we can say that stubborn people need to suffer a couple of defeats before some sense gets knocked into their heads. Maybe it even takes up to three or four times. But with regard to Pharaoh, his obstinacy knew no limits; it was beyond any kind of sense or logic whatsoever. Nothing could phase him, not even the Ten Plagues. He had a veritable heart of stone.

Even the people of Egypt, after they had witnessed the devastation of their homeland, were stunned by their ruler’s subhuman callousness, and they complained to him: "Until when will this [nation] be a snare to us?! Send the men out so they may serve the L-rd, their G-d! Do you not yet realize that Egypt is lost?!" Why didn’t Pharaoh realize what was so obvious to his subjects?

Ah, but Pharaoh’s unprecedented pig-headedness was clearly the design of the Alm-ghty, as it is said, "and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart...and Pharaoh will not listen to you [i.e., Moshe and Aharon], and I will set My hand upon Egypt [to smite them]." Now it makes sense how Pharaoh could be so superhumanly stubborn, for it wasn’t a human stubbornness after all; Pharaoh was, in effect, possessed.

So why was Pharaoh so harshly punished? How could Pharaoh be held accountable for the full extent of his stubbornness when He wasn’t in control of himself at the time? His emotions weren’t really his, and his diabolical actions were a product of these foreign emotions. He could have easily pleaded the case of temporary insanity. In fact, he was more like a puppet than a person. So why was he punished?


Rashi, the classic Torah commentator, answers this question with the following observation: Concerning the first five plagues it does not say that "G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart," but that "Pharaoh made his heart stubborn," indicating that from the very outset, Pharaoh was so rebellious that he purposely brought on his own stubbornness without Divine intervention - to the extent that he managed to summon the audacity to say: "Who is G-d that I should take heed of His voice to send out Yisroel [i.e., the Jewish people]? I don’t know G-d, nor will I send out Yisroel!"

In spite of the natural tendency to concede when so disproportionately unmatched - namely, the all-too-human Pharaoh versus Alm-ghty G-d Himself - nevertheless, Pharaoh mustered the strength to be so obstinate. In punishment, "measure for measure," "G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart." Thus, even through the most dire circumstances, when it was impossible for human stubbornness to persist, Pharaoh persisted, effectively driving himself and his nation to their demise.

But why was Pharaoh additionally punished with the latter five plagues when he was no longer in control of himself, when it is said that "G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart"?


The Rebbe answers this question [in Likkutei Sichos vol. 6; p. 65] according to the explanation found in the Alter Rebbe’s Igeres HaT’shuva:

Even concerning the person of whom it said that - on account of his sins - "he is not granted the opportunity to repent" (someone who is stuck in a rut, like Pharaoh was), nevertheless, if he strives and exerts himself and overcomes his Evil Inclination, his repentance is accepted.

Accordingly, when the Sages say that "he is not granted the opportunity to repent," this does not mean that this person is simply unable to repent and return to the path of G-d - for one always has the choice to exert himself and overcome all obstacles between himself and G-d. Rather, this means that the path for such a person to repent is made difficult - to the point where he must strive with extra effort in order for his repentance to be accepted.

And so it was regarding Pharaoh: even after "G-d hardened his heart," he still had the choice to exert himself and repent - but he did not, and for that he was punished.


How could Pharaoh be held accountable for the full extent of his stubbornness when He wasn’t in control of himself at the time?



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