As a young child, I was very strong minded. I remember really misbehaving one time, ignoring my mother’s pleas to stop. She offered to make hot dogs for dinner—my absolute favorite—yet I persevered. I was too stubborn. “Don’t you want hot dogs?” my mother asked. I held my ground…and she didn’t make hot dogs. I later asked myself why I was so stubborn; after all, I really wanted those hot dogs! But my stubbornness won out that day. It was a life lesson I remember to this day.
In Parshat Bo, the makkot (plagues) continue and Pharaoh remains stubborn, refusing to let the Bnei Yisrael leave, despite the devastating blows and destruction all around him. Why was Pharaoh so stubborn? Why wouldn’t he relent?
The Torah reveals to us the reason. As Hashem told Moshe, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and therefore Pharaoh will refuse. The Rishonim are very troubled by Hashem apparently removing Pharaoh’s free will (bechira.) Every man is given free will by Hashem so he can choose to do right or wrong. How could Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and remove his ability to make the correct choice?
The Rambam disagrees and says Hashem did indeed remove Pharaoh’s free will because of his wickedness against the Jews. Pharaoh needed to be punished. He would feel the full force of all the makkot before letting the Jews go.
Rashi tells us that in the first makkah, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. After he continued his obstinate behavior, however, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart and did not allow him to free the Jews, so Hashem could perform great miracles and demonstrate His power to klal Yisrael.
When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, I used to attend a weekly class with Rav Reuven Leuchter, a very popular mashgiach among both Americans and Israelis. He once spoke on a person’s ability to choose right from wrong. The sefer Mesilat Yesharim, the fundamental work on self-development, tells us that Hashem created man with the ability to choose. All self-development is based on knowing our positive qualities and deficiencies and training ourselves to make the correct decision. From this I realized that my stubborn behavior as a child was something I could overcome. I learned that stubbornness could actually prevent me from attaining many things I want.
However, a person may have a behavior characteristic which prevents him from making the right choice on his own. Whether it’s inherent or developed, mussar is not enough; he needs professional help.
The prime example is addiction. Whether it’s about a substance or behavior, an addict does not have the ability to make a choice. His urges are so strong that he must have outside help in order to conquer those urges. The same is true with certain mental health conditions. Such a person is driven to behave, act or respond in a certain way and professional help is needed.
According to the Rambam, Pharaoh lost his bechira—his ability to choose. He could no longer make a balanced decision on his own. Hashem made Pharaoh addicted to power. Even before the Almighty, he would not give up.
Sometimes, our ability to choose is hampered, but we can recover on our own…with effort. Let’s look at the Egyptian behavior in the makkah of tzefardea—frogs. Rashi quotes the midrash that the makkah started with one large frog that emerged from the Nile. Upon seeing this large scary frog, an Egyptian gave it a powerful hit. This resulted in a stream of frogs shooting out of the frog’s mouth. The Egyptian hit the frog again, sending out another stream of frogs. More Egyptians joined in. Why didn’t they get it? The more they hit the frogs, the more they multiplied!
Rav Wolbe explains this is the reality of anger. A person in a fit of anger loses his sense of reasoning. When someone gets angry, their response is not logical—it’s instinctive. The anger of the Egyptians caused them to believe they just needed more force—hit the frogs harder! They didn’t realize that they were only exacerbating the problem. In a fit of rage, a person loses his ability to make rational decisions. The solution is simple: stay far away from anger.
In areas of addiction—substances, eating disorders, lusts, gambling and other areas—professional help must be found. In areas of self-development, however, we must focus on our own strengths and weaknesses to exercise our choice to act properly. In this case, it’s within our reach. We can improve, change and maybe…get hot dogs for supper!