The torah portion for my bar mitzvah is parshat bo. This parsha consists of the last three plagues of 10 which are the locusts, the darkness and the death of the first born. In this parsha, Pharaoh continues to resist and not let the Israelites go until finally he lets them go after the tenth plague where his first born is killed. At this point, Pharaoh demanded that Moses leave with all the Jews.
One of the commonly discussed parts of this torah portion is when God hardens Pharaoh's heart. There are three different ways that the torah talks about Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. The first time, the torah just says that Pharaoh's heart was hardened as if nobody directly made this happen. Rashi, the great French rabbi from the 11th century, understands this to mean that he was unimpressed by the plagues and therefore had no reason to let the Israelites go. The second time, it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by himself meaning he hardened his own heart.
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson believes this means that Pharaoh had to choose not to let the Israelites go, because his logical response would have been to give up and free the slaves. The third time that the Torah mentions
Pharaoh’s heart being hardened appears in my Torah portion where in this case, it says that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Which brings up a very important question, “Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” Practically speaking, if his heart is hardened, he will resist more. Why would God stiffen Pharaoh’s heart when he could soften it?. Because, if God had softened Pharaoh’s heart, the Israelites would have likely been freed before all ten plagues occurred.
On a moral level, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart may have led to unnecessary suffering. How can a moral God do something that makes people suffer unnecessarily?
Leading up to this point, all of the plagues were to show Pharaoh that God wanted the Israelites to be freed. Now, God has made the plagues more intense, and appears to be trying to achieve something different. Because, if God left Pharaoh’s heart alone, Pharaoh would have already changed his mind, and the Israelites would be free already.
So what might God’s new goal be?
According to Ibn Ezra the Spanish rabbi from the 12th century, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to try and convince Israel that God is God, rather than trying to convince Pharaoh to let Israel go. Even though the plagues were against the egyptians, the audience at this point were the
Israelites. Nachmanides, the Spanish rabbi from the 13th century somewhat agrees with Ibn Ezra, but he thinks that the audience wasn’t just Israel, but the whole world. Even though the whole world wasn’t there in Egypt to see the plagues, the stories would be passed down through generations and spread so that eventually everyone would hear about it.
A neuroscientist named Paul McLean’s model of the brain has three parts. The first part, the brainstem, controls all your vital functions that help you survive- also known as the reptilian complex. The paleomammalian complex, or the limbic system, is mainly responsible for vivid emotions.
Both the reptilian complex and the limbic system are referred to as the old brain because they determine your most automatic reactions. The third part of the brain is the cerebral cortex and it is referred to as the “new brain”. It makes us conscious, alert and aware of our surroundings. It is also the part that makes decisions, thinks, observes. plans, anticipates, responds, creates ideas, and organizes information. So, Pharaoh’s natural response after the first few plagues from his old brain would be to free the people because there’s this God that’s hurting his people but, his new brain is angry and reacts differently and makes the decision to be pertinacious and not let the Israelites go.
As I first thought about this, I had interpreted it as not a direct hardening of Pharaoh’s heart from God but an effect that happened because of what God did to pharaoh’s people regarding the plagues. I think the reason Pharaoh’s heart was hardened because of God was that the plagues began to make Pharaoh angry, so the more upset Pharaoh became the stiffer his heart became. Pharaoh continued to build up this inner resentment to God and eventually he reached his breaking point after the tenth plague where he just gave up and let the Israelites free. I can relate to this because I’ve had many many many fights with my sister and some of which she’s been right. Even when she is right I am occasionally stubborn about it and I won’t admit if she’s right even though I know she is. The more she keeps saying she’s right the more I deny the fact that she is because I am unwilling to admit that she’s right. I don’t want her to win, more importantly I don’t want to lose. The inability to think logically using your new brain can cause people to think irrationally. As many of are aware there have been many terrible terrorist attacks recently occurring all around the world. Also, the presidential campaign is going on and one of candidates is Donald Trump. Donald Trump made a statement saying that
muslims should not be allowed in the United States which was a decision Trump made using his old brain because he was angry that this was happening to people. So, he blamed the muslims because the people who were responsible for these attacks were muslim. To take in perspective how illogical this would be, if someone were to try to keep all muslims out of the US there would be no way to tell if someone was or was not muslim because it doesn’t say on their birth certificate or passport or anything like that. Like Pharaoh, we can all be stubborn but what we have to learn is not to be pig-headed and be able to just admit it when you’re wrong because it slows the process of everything down when you do. What we should take away from this is that we all are stubborn and we all let our old brain make bad decisions, but we need to learn to not let the old brain take over
because then it leads to a suffering to all.
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