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Torah Commentary
Bo (January 4, 2014)

Warren Klein, Interim Curator, Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica

THIS WEEK’S PARASHAH covers the last three of the 10 plagues: locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn. God’s commandment to eat the paschal lamb, matzah and maror (bitter herb) also are addressed, as are the Israelites’ preparations for leaving Egypt.

The verses that struck me while reading this parashah were Exodus 10:1 and 10:20, which describe God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Verse 10:1 uses the verb kabed — literally “heavy” and translated as, “For I [God] have hardened his [Pharaoh’s] heart.” Verse 10:20 uses a different verb (and a different tense): hazak, literally “strong,” translated as, “the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.” Although “hardened” and “stiffened” can be used as synonyms, perhaps the degree to which one is stronger has to do with the plague to which the verse is anticipating.

Both verses describe God’s telling Moses to go to Pharaoh and warn him against the plagues that are about to come. But before God tells Moses what the plague is going to be, he tells Moses that he already has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why then should Moses even try to attempt to ask Pharaoh to free the Israelites if God already has told him Pharaoh is not going to cooperate? It is as if God is putting up a wall and asking Moses to get what is on the other side. It is as if God is testing Moses’ patience. Isn’t it God who is all-powerful and has the ability to control the heart of Pharaoh? Why doesn’t God just loosen or ease Pharaoh’s heart from the start?

In relating this to our lives today and the challenges we face on a daily or weekly basis, it is important to remember that things are not always within our control. Sometimes God or someone else is challenging us in the same way as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to test Moses. It is important to take a step back from the situation, to look at both sides and to remember that we are not always in control. But just as the Israelites finally were freed from slavery, then we, too, will come out of a hard situation free and renewed.

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