What is Smart is Not Always What is Right

Dena Weiss

Parashat Va'Era

Over the course of the ten plagues, the Torah repeatedly informs us about the condition of Pharaoh’s heart, when it is reinforced or strengthened,1 and when it is hardened.2 The text also narrates how Pharaoh’s heart changes, and who is responsible for that change. Sometimes Pharaoh is credited with toughening himself, וַיַּכְבֵּד פַּרְעֹה אֶת לִבּוֹ Pharoaoh reinforced his heart3, but sometimes the text attributes this strengthening and hardening to God, כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ, For I [God] have reinforced his heart. Indeed, at the very outset, when God first issues Moshe with instructions for confronting Pharaoh, God promises Moshe that He will toughen Pharaoh’s resolve and harden his heart, וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה... וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart… and Pharaoh will not listen to you.4 This opens up the possibility that even when the text does not explicitly ascribe the change in Pharaoh’s disposition to God’s involvement, it can still be traced back to God’s will rather than Pharaoh’s own. God’s taking responsibility in this way inspires the major commentaries5 to ask how God could have manipulated Pharaoh in this way. Isn’t He depriving Pharaoh of his free will by making him stubborn? And, if the reason why Pharaoh doesn’t free his Jewish slaves is that God has deprived him of his ability to emancipate Benei Yisrael, how is it fair for God to punish Pharaoh for not letting them go?

However, God is being quite fair. As Pharaoh himself exclaims, “God is the righteous and my people and I are to blame.”6 The claim that God is being unjust in manipulating Pharaoh and subjecting him and his people to the plagues on illegitimate grounds, makes two unnecessary, and possibly incorrect, assumptions. First, it assumes that the plagues are coming to Pharaoh and his people on account of Pharaoh’s refusal to let God’s people go at the time that Moshe asks. However, it is equally, if not more, reasonable, to assume that the plagues are coming because Pharaoh had enslaved God’s people in the first place and caused them to suffer for the decades prior. Pharaoh is not being indicted on this momentary refusal to emancipate his slaves, but rather on his history of abuse.

Furthermore, we see that God orchestrates Pharaoh’s ability to hold on to Benei Yisrael in order to punish Pharaoh. God explicitly says that He wants Pharaoh to refuse to send the people in order to send the plagues. As he instructs Moshe to tell Pharaoh,

שמות י:א
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ:


Shemot 10:1
God said to Moshe, come to Pharaoh for I have reinforced his heart and the heart of his servants in order to extend these signs of Mine in his midst.


God does not send the plagues on account of Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews, rather God ensures that Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews so that God can display His strength. God does not create a reason to punish Pharaoh, what He helps to create are the conditions necessary to bring the punishment and thereby display His greatness. God sends the plagues as a consequence of Pharaoh’s previous behavior, not as a consequence for how he is acting presently. God’s manipulating of Pharaoh’s will now is akin to placing Pharaoh’s hands in handcuffs so that he can be disciplined. It is not the case that God is moving Pharaoh’s hands or heart to commit a crime. God’s acts are merely punitive and justifiably so.

God intends to send harsh retribution, which Pharaoh more than deserves, regardless of when or even if Pharaoh releases His people. The Egyptians are going to absorb at least some fraction of God’s vengeance. But, what is not guaranteed without intervention is that the plagues will descend upon Egypt while Benei Yisrael are still there. God wants Benei Yisrael to be in Egypt while the plagues come for two reasons. First, the plagues are not only designed to punish and impress Pharaoh, they are also intended to impress the people of Israel. As God continues,

שמות י:ב
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' 


Shemot 10:2
And in order that it be told in the ears of your child and grandchild that which I have caused to pass in Egypt and My signs that I have placed in them, and you will know that I am God.


If Benei Yisrael have already departed for the Promised Land and therefore do not see the plagues themselves, then the plagues will have at most served only half of their function. But perhaps more importantly, if God sent the plagues to Pharaoh after he freed Benei Yisrael, then Pharaoh would not know that the plagues came on account of the Jews’ enslavement. He would not have known that the Hebrews’ God is the one who sent the plagues. And perhaps worst of all, he might think that the plagues are a consequence not of his having enslaved these people, but on account of his having freed them.

The second assumption in the critique of God’s having hardened Pharaoh’s heart is that this hardening has the effect of making Pharaoh behave in a way that he was not before and would not be otherwise. It asserts that if God had left Pharaoh’s heart alone, then Pharaoh would be free to do—and therefore would do—the right thing. This understanding relies on a definition of the heart as the seat of the will—a hard heart makes you obstinate and unwilling to do what is right and a soft heart makes you yielding, impressionable, good. However, when the Torah describes the Jewish people as obstinate and sinful, it refers to them not as stiff in their hearts, but rather, as stiff in their necks, 7קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף. Biblical literature often treats the heart as the location of the intellect. As Nahum M. Sarna writes in his book on Sefer Shemot, Exploring Exodus, “Man’s thoughts, his intellectual activity, the cognitive, conative, and affective aspects of his personality, are all regarded as issuing from the heart.”8 We see the heart as knowing and wise throughout the Torah, and perhaps most beautifully when God describes the skill and wisdom involved in the crafting of the mishkan and its furnishings, where He refers to the artisans as חֲכַם לֵב, wise-hearted.9 

Consequently, when God (or Pharaoh) hardens or reinforces Pharaoh’s heart, what is being strengthened is Pharaoh’s ability to reason. God is primarily influencing his intelligence. He makes Pharaoh strong of mind and encourages him to think that he is being clever and that he is being strategic, which masks that he is in fact merely being cruel. God doesn’t make Pharoah tough, so much as He makes him sharp. Pharaoh’s cruelty and propensity to sin is not what God is manipulating; God is strengthening Pharaoh’s ability to rationalize this behavior. Rationalizing a behavior doesn’t necessarily determine whether or not the action will take place, but rather how it should be evaluated, how one thinks about what has been done.

This approach to Pharaoh is pointedly מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure. A deep understanding of Pharaoh and a close reading of his behavior shows that he does not make decisions based on whether they are right or wrong, but based upon whether or not they are wise. Whether or not he is correct, Pharaoh’s considerations are entirely strategic. As we see when he launches his campaign against the people,

שמות י:ח-יג
וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף: וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ: הָבָה נִּתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ: וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס: וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ


Shemot 1:8-13
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites.10 


Pharoah doesn’t think that killing the Israelite male children is a morally responsible choice to make; he is ostensibly aware of the fact that the children he is slaughtering are innocent. Pharaoh isn’t evaluating his behavior in moral terms, in terms of what he is justified in doing, he thinks only in terms of what is the most clever course of action, “let us deal shrewdly with them.” Understanding Pharaoh’s character and motivation in this way enables us to understand what the process and effect is of hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It is not that Pharaoh is making a moral calculus and God is taking away his ability to do what is right by making him more stubborn. Pharaoh doesn’t engage in moral terms at all.

Framing Pharaoh’s internal debate as to whether or not to send the people as an intellectual one enables us to notice how much mental labor Pharoah is doing in order to convince himself to hold on to the people. The first thing that Pharoah does when he is confronted with Moshe’s power is to call his wise men and magicians. When he sees that they can replicate the first few plagues, he decides not to free the Jews. Rashbam (7:13) explains that when Pharaoh’s heart is hardened it is, “to say that Aharon also did [his miracle] through magic.” The effect of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is that he rationalizes away the plagues’ significance, claiming that there is no difference between Aharon and his magicians. And it is this unwillingness to recognize the power of God through the plagues that requires God to bring them again and again.

It is also clear from a close reading of the text that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart does not have the effect of preventing him from sending the people away. He actually relents and sends them away repeatedly! What his hard heart does is make him retract his decision, he talks himself out of the choice that he made. The first time we see this is when he asks Moshe to pray for the removal of the frogs, and claims that he’ll send the people once the frogs are gone. But he does not keep his promise. Rather, וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה׳, Pharaoh saw that there was some reprieve and he reinforced his heart and did not listen to them, like God said (Shemot 8:4). This pattern repeats throughout the plagues, with Pharaoh reversing his promise to send the people after the frogs, the wild animals, the hail, and the locusts. And of course, running after the people after he frees them after the death of the firstborn.

We see that in fact, Pharaoh relents after half of the plagues. He keeps on changing his mind. Yet, he retracts his promises to let the people go because he sees that his magicians can imitate the plague or that Moshe can be talked into praying them away. Pharaoh isn’t being manipulated, if anything he is being manipulative. He begs Moshe to take away the plague, but as soon as he gets a reprieve, he denies his own word. If Pharoah were just stubborn, he would say, “Bring me your worst, and I don’t care about the consequences.” But he does not stand his ground, he cowers, and he gives in. He has the free will to send the people, which he exercises repeatedly. But then he changes his mind.

When the Torah demonstrates that Pharoah isn’t freeing his slaves on account of a hardened heart it does so in order to show us the power of rationalization. The repetition of the same dynamic plague after plague shows that despite how overwhelmingly wrong it is and how damaging it is to his own country, Pharaoh is always able to convince himself anew to re-enslave the people. The re-hardening of the heart is a natural recreation of the conditions of his original sin. Pharaoh chooses to do what he thinks is clever over what he knows is right, because Pharaoh had initially enslaved the people by doing what he thought was clever over what he knew was right. And perhaps the deeper reason why Pharoah doesn’t free his slaves is not that he still wants them in captivity, it’s that he doesn’t want to be seen as having made a mistake. He wants his choices to be vindicated.

The lesson of the story of Pharaoh’s heart is that what’s good isn’t always what seems smart or strategic, and that what is in fact most clever isn’t always what is right. Often our minds are not the right place to look for moral guidance because they are too sophisticated, too able to convince us to do what is wrong. Our intellects can makes us blind to our own evil through the power of rationalization. This is why the Haggadah opens with telling us that the mitzvah of Retelling the Story of the Exodus, Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, is for everyone, even the very wise. 

וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

Even if we are all wise, elders, sages who know the Torah, it is our obligation to tell the story of leaving Egypt.


For, perhaps it is not even the very wise, but especially the very wise who need to learn the essential lesson of the process of the Exodus and the ten plagues. We need to learn that being wise doesn’t necessarily make a person good or kind or moral, and unfortunately, we can become too smart for our own good.

1 כ,ב,ד or ח,ז,ק.

2 ק,ש,ה.

3 Shemot 8:27, 10:1.

4 Shemot 7:3-4.

5 See Ibn Ezra, Ramban to Shemot 7:3.

6 Shemot 9:27.

7 See Shemot 32:9, 33:5, 34:9.

8 Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (Schocken: New York, 1986), p. 64.

9 See Shemot 31:6. This is also how Mishlei uses the imagery of heart throughout its exploration of moral and life education.

10 Translation NRSV.