Throughout the episode of the Ten Plagues, described in last week’s and this week’s sidra, we read of the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.’ For the first five plagues, it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart. For the remainder, we read that it is G-d who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.

What does this mean?

Did G-d cause him a hardening of the arteries? Did Pharaoh suffer from angina!

Of course, we appreciate that the Torah uses the word ‘heart’ figuratively, to refer to the source of a person’s moral, spiritual and intellectual capacities.
We still do this today. We know that from our emojis. Last year, the ‘red heart’ emoji ❤️ was the second-most popular, bested only by ‘the face with tears of joy,’😂. (Source: the Unicode Consortium.)

So, Pharaoh began by being hard-hearted. At first, he chose to be obstructive. He wouldn’t let the Israelites go. Having repeatedly made that choice, again and again, it became more and more difficult to revert back to a different path.

As the late Nechama Leibowitz puts it:

G-d did not force Pharaoh to choose evil. It was Pharaoh’s own doing. Once he persisted in his course of action, it became more and more irresistible. G-d had built this response, as it were, into man’s makeup. The more he sins, the more his sins act as a barrier between him and repentance. [Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, WZO 1976, p. 157]
Having embarked on a path of moral arrogance, Pharaoh’s behaviour has become addictive and he is now on a downward spiral. Like the person who has become hooked on drugs, alcohol, or gambling, it is much more difficult for him to change course.

Can we picture ourselves, as Israelites in Egypt at that time? What would we have made of Pharaoh’s tragic saga?

As well as seeing the villain being punished there was a warning as well.

Never underestimate the corrosive and addictive power of a course of wrong behaviour. It generates a momentum of its own that becomes so difficult to alter.
Pharaoh demonstrated vividly, that once you set-out on a path of corruption, you may lose the ability to change. This is not because G-d would be depriving you of free will. It would be a consequence of the choices you had made. A reminder to us, to pay attention to the choices we make each day.