Like Pharaoh, our minds are made up but can we change


Exodus 10:1-13:16

Jeremiah 46:13-46:28

Pharaoh is a frightening villain precisely because his motives are so understandable, his actions so human. Even Haman can’t hold a candle to him. Haman’s motives are cartoonish. He decides to kill the Jews because Mordechai refuses to bow before him, and then he gets tricked by Esther in the finest tradition of slapstick comedy. Haman always strikes me as a silent movie bad guy, complete with waxed mustache and piano music.

Pharaoh, by contrast, is genuinely scary. He sets out to destroy the Jewish people in a systematic way. Most frightening of all, he starts with good motives. “Let us deal wisely with them, lest they join an enemy and rise up against us,” he tells his doubting courtiers who presumably remember Joseph’s help to Egypt. At least ostensibly, Pharaoh wants to guarantee his people’s future. Pharaoh sets out to be a hero to Egypt.

Stubbornness undoes Pharaoh more than evil. He clings tenaciously to his course even in the face of real pain and anguish. First he turns his eyes away from the suffering of the Jewish people, commanding that all the male babies be killed at birth. Then, as the plagues take their toll, he turns his eyes away from the suffering of his own people.

God repeatedly tells Moses that he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Abarbanel, a medieval biblical commentator, understands God to mean that “the fear will be taken from Pharaoh so that he can make a real choice.” Awe at God’s miracles will be removed from Pharaoh’s heart; he will base his decisions on a calculus of rationality.

Maimonides, by contrast, notes that God begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart only after the sixth plague. Pharaoh admits that Moses is right and repents. But he returns to his old patterns of fear and betrayal. So, says Maimonides, choice is now taken from Pharaoh. He has set himself a pattern that can no longer be broken.

Thus the harsh justice of the plagues narrative. First, Pharaoh turns his eyes from the suffering of the Jewish people. Then he turns his eyes from the suffering of his own people. Finally, he is forced to see the devastation his stubbornness and fear have wrought when his own son is killed by the Angel of Death in the final plague. Each time he closes his eyes. Each time he chooses blindness to the suffering of others. Finally, God pries open his eyes with the death of his own first-born son.

Modern neuroscience supports Maimonides. Acting in a particular way creates neural pathways. We learn how to drive, and create neural connections that make driving automatic and routine. We learn certain ways of behaving and speaking, and they too become set as part of our routine. The pathways are established, so the actions follow their course without much conscious thought. How we relate to others, the choices we make in our day-to-day lives, similarly create neural pathways that over time make change difficult.

It is human nature for our hearts to become hardened. We learn the scripts of our parents, our family, our friends, and become inured to the pain those scripts may cause others or ourselves.

Each of us has a Pharaoh within. A voice that says “do that which protects my interests,” but fails to remember there’s another voice. This inner voice is based on fear and stubbornness and refuses to look beyond our own space. When we heed that voice, our hearts are hardened and others suffer.

The Divine Voice, by contrast, says, “I place before you this day a choice of death and a choice of life. Choose life.” Difficult as it is, new behaviors can be learned, new healthier neural pathways established. We can turn away from stubbornness, from the habits formed out of a lifetime, and choose to turn toward God and goodness.

Let us turn away from selfishness, stubbornness and fear, from the voices of Pharaoh within us, and toward the Divine Voice that is filled with caring and love.

Rabbi David Booth
is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].