[This article was extracted from a series, so the beginning
and end may seem a bit choppy]
The basic approach of the commentaries is that G-d indeed
"hardened Pharaoh's heart," but only after he had tortured
the Jewish people for a lengthy period of time. This can be seen by
simply reading the sequence of events.
Pharaoh's inhumane treatment of the Jewish people, including
infanticide and devastating oppression, begins at the opening of the
Book of Exodus, before Moses is even born. G-d's first statement of
intent, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 4:21), was said
only after Moses had grown up, ran away to Midian, married and had children.
Therefore, it was only after Pharaoh had sinned in the most inhumane
manner that G-d stripped him of his free choice.
But what was the purpose of taking away his free choice?
Maimonides explains that losing his free choice was itself Pharaoh's
punishment. Under normal circumstances, the path of repentance is always
open; G-d wanted to show the world that a person could sin so severely
that he will be denied the ability to correct it through repentance,
causing him to die in that degenerate state. In a way this is the ultimate
punishment, since the person is permanently denied the ultimate reward
of the World to Come.
But this raises another question: there are numerous
ways by which G-d could have punished Pharaoh. The lesson that G-d can
deny a person of his free choice can be derived from other Biblical
passages, as Maimonides shows. What was the point in punishing Pharaoh
in this specific way?
So many Sparks
There are a number of approaches to this issue, the first
of which involves the concept of purification of sparks, or birurim.
It is explained in Kabalistic literature that with the
creation of the universe, sparks of holiness were spread throughout
the world. This process is alluded to in the second verse of the account
of Creation (Gen. 1:2), which says that, "the spirit of G-d hovered
above the water." The Hebrew word for "hovered," is m'rachefet,
and contains five letters. When rearranged, these letters spell out
the phrase "288 died" (rachaf-met), which is explained in
Kabalistic literature as alluding to the descent of these 288 sparks
from their spiritual source above down to the physical world.
These 288 sparks must be purified and elevated in order
to bring the world to completeness and redemption. Mystical literature
states that 202 out of the total 288 sparks were purified in Egypt.
This is alluded to in the verse stating that, "A mixed multitude
(erev rav) came up with them" (Ex. 12:38). The Hebrew word, "rav"
("multitude") has a numeric value of 202, referring to the
202 sparks which were elevated. After the Exodus from Egypt, it was
left to us to work on the remaining 86, which had split into countless
How? How Long?
Some of the ways in which these sparks can be purified
are known to us; others are concealed from us in what is known as the
"secret of purification," sod habirurim. The primary purification
of the sparks in Egypt was achieved through the exhausting labor of
the Jewish people, as explained elsewhere. This is actually one of the
explanations of why the work was so hard: the sparks had to be completely
elevated before the Jewish people could leave.
If they hadn't worked so hard, the 210 years would not
have been long enough; they would have had to remain even longer to
elevate the sparks. It was vitally important to elevate every last spark
as part of the overall scheme of creation. In addition, these sparks
contained various souls which, when purified, would later descend to
become vital elements of the Jewish people.
Being Purified Can Be Hard Work
There was another factor as well. The Jews who were enslaved
in Egypt were being prepared to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. Egypt
is therefore compared by Scripture to a "crucible," which
purifies metal by exposing it to intense heat. Only this process can
drive out the impurities, and produce pure, untainted gold.
The Egyptian bondage was therefore an integral part of creating the
Jewish people. Had they been redeemed "prematurely," the purification
would have been incomplete.
Pharaoh would never have allowed this process to be completed
had it been up to him. The plagues, as his servants pointed out to him,
had virtually destroyed Egypt. There was no point in holding on to the
Jews any longer.
But had he let them go earlier, the purification of sparks
and the preparation of the Jewish people would not have been completed.
The hundreds of years of slavery would have been pointless.
This helps us understand why Pharaoh was punished specifically
by taking away his free will. In this way, G-d ensured that the Egyptian
exile would last the proper length of time, and that its ultimate purpose
Rabbi Berel Bell is a well-known educator, author and
lecturer. Many of his classes can be heard on http://www.chassidus.com/audio/.
He and his family reside in Montreal, Canada.