In Parashat VaEira, we read the story of the first seven plagues. By each of the plagues, Moshe asks Par’oh to let the Jewish people go on a three-day journey in the wilderness. Par’oh does not let the Jews go on their journey, and as a result, Hashem strikes all of Egypt (except for Goshen, where the Jewish people lived) with a plague. Par’oh then begs Moshe to remove the plague, and after he does, Par’oh’s heart is hardened, and he refuses to let the Jewish people leave Egypt.
According to the simple Peshat of the text, Par’oh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues. Regarding the plague of Dever, pestilence, which is the fifth Makkah, the Torah states, “VaYichebad Leiv Par’oh VeLo Shilach Et HaAm,” “Par’oh’s heart became stubborn, and he did not send out the people” (Shemot 9:7). Since the text does not specify who hardened Par’oh’s heart, the simple understanding is that Par’oh hardened his own heart. However, there is a shift in the phraseology of the text starting with the sixth plague, boils. By this plague, it states, “VaYechazeik Hashem Et Leiv Par’oh,” “Hashem strengthened the heart of Par’oh” (9:12). This Pasuk clearly states that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart. Par’oh now had no choice but to do what Hashem wanted.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 13:3) quotes the obvious question raised by Rav Yochanan. It seems unfair to punish Par’oh for his actions, if, in fact, his heart was hardened by Hashem. Rav Shimon Ben Lakish answers that Hashem sent the first five plagues as signs for Par’oh to repent, but Par’oh ignored them. As a punishment, Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart so that he would no longer be able to repent. This punishment was Middah KeNeged Middah, measure for measure. Just as with the first five plagues Par’oh hardened his heart and chose to ignore Hashem, with the latter plagues Par’oh was punished by losing the ability to control his heart, which he hardened himself.
Rav Shimon Ben Lakish’s explanation leaves a question unanswered. Why was Par’oh punished only after ignoring the first five plagues? Was he not deserving of a punishment for all of his terrible actions before the first five Makkot? He cruelly enslaved the Jewish people, demanded that all male Jewish children be thrown into the Nile, and even killed Jewish children to bathe in their blood (Shemot Rabbah 1:34). Why, then, was he punished only after ignoring the first five plagues?
One explanation for the delay in punishment is that Hashem is slow to anger and compassionate when punishing. Par’oh was definitely deserving of punishment for his prior actions, but Hashem punished him only after ignoring the first five plagues. Hashem waited to punish Par’oh until He was sure that Par’oh would not do Teshuvah. This is a perfect example of Hashem being a ‘Keil Rachum VeChanun,’ ‘Merciful and Compassionate God.’ He is overly slow to anger, and he punishes with compassion.
We should try to emulate Hashem’s ways, as the Pasuk states, “VeHalachta BiDerachav,” “And you should walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). If we do so, we will hopefully merit the blessings that are promised, “VeHotirecha Hashem LeTovah,” “And Hashem shall make you abundant” in all areas of life(28:11).