During the last days of prophetic vision, some 25 hundred years ago, the sages divided the Torah into parshios – portions, and decreed that successive parshios should be read publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service, so that the Jewish people would hear the reading of the entire Torah from year to year. The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.
It is curious, therefore, that the sages saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Plagues upon Egypt into last week’s parsha, while leaving the final three for this week’s Torah portion. The commentaries discuss at length the arrangement of the plagues into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself. Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, it would better have been placed the point of division after the sixth plague – which completed the second set of three – than after the seventh.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does stand out from all the rest by virtue of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction. After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague had abated. But after the plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission: This time I have sinned; God is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.
In its discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am a tzaddik – a righteous man.” The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation. Why? Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man.
If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession in the face of the extraordinary suspension of nature, whereby the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians, opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.
From the very beginning, it had been the Almighty’s plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go, so that God would have cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.” After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart. In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart: because Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.
After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions: first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, God informs Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How can both be true at the same time?
The power of tshuva – repentance – is unimaginable. In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men. Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth. Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, God Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.
We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, God had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart. In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.
No force, that is, except himself. Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…
The moment was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured. Instead of seizing the moment and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into oblivion of his past.
And so last week’s parsha ends: by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country. But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.
How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth? How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?
And what do we do with these opportunities? Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, return reflexively to the habits of the past? Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard. The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.
Rabbi Goldson writes regularly at Torah Ideals