This week’s Parsha continues with the Makkot where Vaera left off. Once again, after each Makkah Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he changes his mind about freeing Bnei Yisrael. Upon close examination, one notices that during the first five Makkot Pharaoh himself hardens his heart, while during the last five Makkot, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart. (see Chizkuni 7:3 concerning Barad) The Seforno comments that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to give Pharaoh the opportunity to do Teshuva. If Pharaoh were to acknowledge Hashem and free Bnei Yisrael during the Makkot, there would be no element of real Bechira Chofshit involved. After witnessing miracles as amazing as the Makkot, there is no challenge in accepting Hashem, thus making any attempt of Teshuva insincere. Therefore, for Pharaoh to do complete Teshuva, Hashem had to make him even more stubborn.
Along the same lines, an alternate explanation for Hashem’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart can be offered. In both Barad and Arbeh, there are hints that the Egyptian people were beginning to “see” Hashem. Regarding Barad, the Torah records that some Egyptians saved their crops and animals from the hail by brining them indoors. Further, in the case of Arbeh, the Torah relates that Pharaoh’s servants beg for Bnei Yisrael to be freed (10:7). This shift in attitude by the Egyptian people towards Bnei Yisrael and Hashem should have influenced Pharaoh to free the Jews. However, if Pharaoh had listened to the Egyptian people’s request to free the Jews he would miss his chance to do Teshuva. Therefore, Hashem forced Pharaoh to not only be stubborn, but to be selfish as well.
This explanation lends itself to a strong question. If Pharaoh had already been physically abused multiple times as a result of his actions towards Bnei Yisrael, then why would he still want the Jews under his control? To answer this question an understanding of Egyptian culture can be used. Pharaoh was considered the human manifestation of the Egyptian gods. During this time, the Egyptian gods were considered the strongest of all the gods, thus making Pharaoh the most powerful person alive. However, if Pharaoh would acknowledge defeat and allow Hashem to take the Jews out of his control, he would be stating to the world that Hashem is the strongest God, thus drastically diminishing his influence.
It is interesting to note that Shadal writes that Hashem did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, rather he gave Pharaoh the personality to do something of this nature. With that in mind we can learn a lesson from the failures of Pharaoh. Pharaoh chose to preserve his personal power rather then listen to his people. In contrast, as Jews, we must be careful to never ignore the sufferings of other people for personal benefit.