Throughout the episode of the Ten Plagues, described in last week’s sidra 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 subsequent plagues, 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!

We need to appreciate that the Torah uses the term ‘heart’ to refer to the source of a person’s moral, spiritual and intellectual capacities. (Indeed, the medieval work, Chovot Halevavot, often translated as ‘Duties of the Heart’ is more correctly rendered as ‘Duties of the Intellect.’)

Even though today we are fully aware that the heart is only a physical organ, the biblical usage, in describing our emotions, is as much a part of our lives as it ever was. According to Apple, the red heart emoji was the second-most popular emoji in 2017, bested only by the crying-laugh face.

So Pharaoh began by being hard-hearted.  Initially he chose to be obstructive in responding to the request to let the Israelites go. Having repeatedly made that choice, it became progressively 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 intransigence 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.

There is a powerful object lesson here for the Israelites looking to their future as a free people, destined to live in their own land. They should never underestimate the corrosive power of a course of wicked behavior. It generates a momentum of its own that becomes so difficult to alter. They can see, all too vividly, from Pharaoh’s example, that were they to embark on a path of wickedness, they may lose the ability to change. This is not because G-d would be depriving them of free will. It would be a consequence of the choices they themselves had made. A lesson, surely, for our lives today.