Hardening the Heart is mentioned 19 times in the Exodus story, and today, in 4:21 is the first instance. Nine of those instances state that God hardened his heart (including the occasion here in Ex. 4:21), three times it is stated that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and five times we are not told who it was that caused it but it is in the passive “his heart was hardened”.
Let’s look at the two words “hardened” and “heart.” The word hardened is in English but in Hebrew there are three different words used to describe Pharaoh’s condition from its beginning here in chapter 4 to its end in chapter 14: first is kaved which has the idea of ‘to be heavy, insensible, or dull,’ and is used in 7:14; 8:15,32; and 9:7,34- the middle instances. Though here its his heart, the word kaved is also used in Tanach as a dullness of the tongue, the eyes, and the mouth. It’s an adjective of reaction. It refers I think to Pharoah’s emotions: he moves slowly, laboriously, and is a little dull. He finds the Hebrews tedious and running Egypt is a heavy burden on him, so he is hardened to these insignificant little slaves. I think about how we get innured and dulled about the pain of other people when our own issues, our own burdens, weigh heavily upon us.
The next word used is kashah which conveys the sense of being hard, severe, cruel or fierce. There are two occurrences of this term, one in 7:3 and the other in 13:15: the middle and the end of the story. Here I think they are indicators of Pharoah’s actions: ok you are being difficult with me, Israelites, I’ll be difficult with you. We’ve moved past dullness, where you just don’t pay much attention, to intended hardness, a cause and effect. I think about how we seek little ways of “getting back” when someone is difficult with us.
The third term used for hardening is hazaq, which is the strongest term employed, meaning ‘powerful and strong; firm, secure.’ It’s the first term (used here in chapter 4), a middle term in chapter 7, AND one of the the last terms used in the hardening episodes, in chapter 14. It’s used most frequently—11 times—and it’s about Pharoah’s character. Its the one we recognize in ourselves, unfortunately, when we become rigid, stubborn and obstinate, on purpose. We won’t be moved.
So kaved is an apathetic heart, kasheh is a spiteful heart, and chazaq is an inflexible heart. Pharoah—and we— have all three.
But what is the heart in Tanach? “Lev” actually denotes intellectual activity; the heart is not the seat of our emotions in the Bible—the klayot or kidneys are. The heart in the Bible is the place of our rational processes. So when Pharoah’s heart is hard, its not his emotions, its his intellect. He cannot fathom in a philosophical way why slaves should be free. But given his world, the perceived and accepted role of Pharoah as a god, and the normalcy of slavery, it really doesn’t make sense intellectually for Pharoah to let the people go. So hardening his heart is actually hardening his mind.
And just what exactly hardens his mind? Not G-d, but rather, the idea of G-d, for Pharoah who was raised to believe in himself as a god, our G-d is a concept that hardens his heart. That there is another force as powerful—no, more powerful—than him is inconceivable to Pharoah’s rational process. It isn’t G-d who hardens Pharaoh’s heart — it’s just the idea of G-d. The concept that he isn’t the ultimate authority so pisses Pharoah off that he won’t let the people go, just to prove that he alone is the final word in Egypt. There’s no God pulling any strings here- Pharoah’s mind wants to prove to the Egyptian world that he alone pulls the strings of those pesky slaves.
Thats the power of religion and thats what makes it so threatening: religion says two things we don’t want to hear: 1. we are not in control and 2. we are not the centre of the universe, its creator, or its master.
So even though the idea of G-d hardening Pharoah’s heart goes against the basic Jewish tenet of free will, it is still Pharoah’s choice to become hardened.
I think Pharoah chose to let his heart be hardened for a simple emotional reason as well as for the intellectual reasons I spoke about. Simply put: there is a deep and perverse satisfaction in being able to say NO. We learn that at a very early age- the terrible twos. I’ve always noticed that people on the lower rungs of an employment ladder say “no” more often, out of some sense of control, and agency, and potency. (Except the Apple store where the motto seems to be we will find a way to say yes.) And the more you push for a yes, often the more resistance you get and the firmer the “no” becomes. Pharoah wants to say no because no is a mightier word than yes- a withholding word, a rigid word, a word that encourages begging and pleading and gives the withholder real power over the asker.
The most basic form of control is to refuse someone else. At our earliest stage as a baby it is our first form of resistance, and at the end of our lives, even in cases of elderly people with dementia, the ability to close the mouth, shake the head, say “no” is what gives us some last sense of self-agency.
But saying no hurts us. Saying yes makes us much nicer people, and much freer people. Saying yes is an amazingly liberating experience. In the end, Pharoah does let the people go, and in freeing them, in saying yes, he actually frees himself. Thats what the Baal Shem Tov teaches when he says each person is a miniature world, and inside that world every person has a little Egypt, and inside every person’s Egypt there is a Pharoah, holding on to his stubborn heart... BUT, the Baal Shem Tov says, inside every person’s Egypt there is also a Moses, waiting for us to be ready to be free.