I’ll have to admit that I have not seen the new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, but I understand why Ridley Scott was drawn to the story. The narrative of the Exodus is compelling filled with dramatic tension, flawed characters, and wondrous miracles. While I think my vision of the Exodus may be more Prince of Egypt or Charlton Heston, we can be enriched in our understanding of our sacred texts each time a new creative force attempts to interpret them into a new medium.
Over the last several weeks, the story of the Exodus has been unfolding from the bimah of our synagogues as we read the opening parshiyot of the book of Exodus. Like the movies, this story is keeping me engaged and curious as a I read along.

One thing that has caught my eye was the constant repetition of the Hebrew phrase which we translate as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It appears twenty times between Vaera and Bo as we witness the interaction between Pharaoh and Moses with the plagues occurring in the background.

Most of our traditional commentators look at this as the increasing development of Pharaoh’s stubborn nature. His resistance to changing his mind builds and eventually the hardening of his heart is attributed to God. Some interpretations of the text say that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was done to demonstrate the incredible power of God. Others are troubled by the lack of free will that these passages seem to infer. Instead, they say that Pharaoh was given several chances to change his mind and repent. Each time that he refused, he backed himself further into a corner making it harder and harder for Pharaoh to change his mind and save face. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was merely an example of human nature at work.

Somehow, these interpretations weren’t satisfying to me (like many people’s impressions of Ridley Scott’s movie). They don’t fully explain the divine intervention needed during the last five plagues. A chance reading of a more obscure commentator, Hizkuni, brought me new insight. Hizkuni writes that God wasn’t making Pharaoh stubborn; he was strengthening Pharaoh’s heart so that he did not die of fear!

Now, all of a sudden, this makes some sense.  The plagues are fear and awe inspiring. Nature is running awry as God is proving God’s supremacy over Egypt. Had Pharaoh’s heart not been strengthened, the events of the Exodus might have unfolded differently and the Egyptians might have not given the Israelites their full freedom.

Most of the time, we want our children to aspire to be like our heroes, but perhaps in this one case, we want our children to have a little Pharaoh in them. We want them to strengthen their hearts to be able to face the trials and tribulations that await them as they grow. We want them to have an inner strength that grants them resolve to forge forward in the face of adversity. We want them to have the strength to have convictions and take action to see those thoughts become reality around them.

So while I will wish that you live until 120 like Moses, I also wish for you to strengthen your hearts like God did for Pharaoh.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Ari Yares
Head of School

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