Thursday, December 26, 2013

Could Pharaoh have simply let them go?

Really just one quick thought, in several parts. I am not going to flesh it out with all the prooftexts I want to because that version of the post was getting too long.

It was Hashem's plan from the ברית בין הבתרים to judge the Egyptians, and to despoil Egypt: וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל. And to do so with 10 plagues, which were inscribed from the beginning upon Moshe's sapphire staff.

Moshe was unaware of this which is why he went to Pharaoh expecting him to listen. And why when that fails he complains to Hashem about  הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה--לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

This even though Hashem had told him in Shemot 3 that
ט  וַאֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי--כִּי לֹא-יִתֵּן אֶתְכֶם מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לַהֲלֹךְ:  וְלֹא, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה.19 And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand.
כ  וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת-יָדִי, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹל נִפְלְאֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּקִרְבּוֹ; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן, יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם.20 And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go.

Could Pharaoh have let them go, at Moshe's initial request? Well, perhaps he could have, but logic dictated that he first confirm that Moshe was not some random religious lunatic but actually had the force of God behind him.

Maybe even the need for the first few plagues could be understood in this manner, for so long as the magicians were able to duplicate it, it could be understood to be magic or else trickery. Once they say that it is the "finger of God", then there was no more denying it.

Yet Hashem repeatedly hardened Pharaoh's heart.

This could be understood as giving it strength not to melt in the face of a contest with God. Consider that Iyov was exceptional in this regard. Most people don't have the strength of character to stay in a fight in which they will certainly be obliterated, for the mere principle of the matter. And here, could we even say that Pharaoh thought he was right? He was egotistical, perhaps.

Alternatively, we could understand it as Hashem taking away Pharaoh's bechira. Because as it states in Mishlei, פלגי מים לב מלך ביד ה' על כל אשר יחפץ יטנו. And this elimination of bechira is a way of controlling the world at a macro level. How could Hashem punish Pharaoh if He had removed Pharaoh's bechira? Pharaoh and the Egyptians had behaved wickedly enough until this point. The removal of the bechira, like the cutting of a brake line, as Egypt sped towards its destruction, was the punishment.

What does Hashem "get" out of this, that he should harden Pharaoh's heart? Well, a fulfillment of his promise at the ברית בין הבתרים.

But I think it is more than that. We mention Hashem's greatness in primarily two things: the Creation of the world, and the Exodus from Egypt.

Until this point, Hashem was "merely" the Creator. This creative act wasn't witnessed by anyone, and it seems plausible that various nations could even attribute this feat to their own local deity. For example, Marduk slaying Tiamat and making from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth.

By waging war of Egypt and all its imaginary deities (ובכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים) Hashem is taking concrete action in the world and displaying His יָד חֲזָקָה. Of course He could do these mighty acts, and indeed these mighty acts are beneath him, because He could just cause the Egyptians to blink out of existence if He so willed it. But all this Divine power was just in potential, not brought into being.

Now people (Israelites, other nations) could point to these great Divine deeds and start to understand, with their limited human capacity, a tiny bit of Hashem's greatness, and ask אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיךָ? And no longer could a Pharaoh say -מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ, לְשַׁלַּח אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל:  לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-ה, וְגַם אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ.

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