"Pharaoh saw the rain, the hail, and the thunder ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn, he and his servants (Exodus 9:34).
The plagues are the ultimate expression of God’s physical power. Seeing them with one’s own eyes would count towards irrefutable proof of the extent of God’s infinite capacity to alter the reality of the universe. And surely, witnessing a plague would be enough to cause instant humility. Yet here in this passage, plain as a day, an individual looks upon the works of Divinity and rejects what he sees. Pharaoh, the paragon of despotism, sees firsthand the miracles of God and rejects their effect on his people. And himself.
God does not perform the plagues out of barbarity. They are wake up calls to recognize the dignity of the Hebrew slaves and to free them from their oppressive servitude. But as soon as a plague ends, Pharaoh forgets it. In the end, it doesn't take seven, eight, or nine plagues to sway Pharaoh’s heart, but the irrevocability of the tenth plague that finally pushes him towards what is right and just.
Change is difficult. How many of us have had near-death experiences or experienced our mortality acutely and pledged to live differently? Yet, only moments later, we find ourselves back in our routine. Typically, it requires strong negative interventions in one's life to remove oneself from harmful practices. But, even that doesn't always work. Do we really need ten plagues in our lives for our hearts to change?
The Torah comes to teach that self-transformation is indeed a challenge but always possible. One of the great Jewish insights is that human essence is not evil but good and that we need not reinvent ourselves. Rather, we engage in teshuvah: acts of returning to our purest essence. This optimistic vision of freedom and human potential is one that we must seek to actualize each day.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek
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