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Shmot - Vaera

Boiled eggs, free will and the Hogwarts Sorting Hat

Like the hard boiled, burnt egg on our seder plate, with each successive plague throughout our parash, Pharoah’s heart grows harder. A close reading shows that for the first five plagues “Pharoah hardened his heart”, refusing to let the people go, hence bringing the next, more horrific plague on Egypt. However for the sixth-tenth plagues, the language subtly shifts - “God hardened Pharoah’s heart”.

There are at least two serious challenges with the idea of God hardening Pharoah’s heart. First, if God hardened Pharoah’s heart, how can Pharoah be held responsible for the intrasigence which kept the Israelites in Egypt? And connected with this comes the second, more concerning problem: with each hardening came another plague and more suffering. What are the theological implications of God punishing Egypt for that intransigence if it was in fact caused by God? Are Pharoah and the Egyptians mere instruments for God to demonstrate chilling power?

The midrash takes up this question. Rabbi Simon ben Lakish claims in Exodus Rabbah, “Since God sent [the opportunity for repentance and doing the right thing] five times to him and he paid no notice, God then said, ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own…. So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God.’”

Pharoah, according to the midrash and several other rabbinic takes (Ibn Ezra: “The door is opened for one who comes to defile himself”) made his own free decision, time after time, to refuse freedom to the enslaved Israelites. At this point God picks up, “opening the door”, and finishing Pharoah’s story the way he started it.

For the Harry Potter fans here, I’m reminded of the Sorting Hat, which chooses which house each Hogwarts students will go to: “There's nothing hidden in your head the Sorting Hat can't see, So try me on and I will tell you where you ought to be.” The hat identifies a student’s inner traits and suggests which house the student should be placed in:

Harry : Not Slytherin. Not Slytherin.

Sorting Hat : Not Slytherin, eh? Are you sure? You could be great, you know. It's all here in your head. And Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, there's no doubt about that. No?

The Hat takes into account not only essential character traits, but also intentions. Harry chooses a righteous path, and the Hat sends him on his way in this direction. In contrast, Pharoah chooses an inhumane path, and God sends him further in this direction. As Ben Azzai says in Pirkei Avot 4:2: “One mitzvah leads to another; one aveirah (sin) leads to another”. Our actions reinforce themselves, building towards the people we all become.

Rabbi Shai Held in “The Heart of Torah” puts it beautifully: “Mindfulness and constant, exquisite attention are necessary for freedom to flourish. Freedom needs to be nurtured and attended to, not taken for granted.”

Free will is a complex matter. It doesn’t exist each moment in a vacuum, but in the context of multiple life choices which form us, making true change increasingly difficult. Boil it enough, and the egg on your seder plate will be hard, never again to soften.


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