We are well aware that Pharaoh had no desire to let the Jews walk free from Egypt, despite numerous pleas from their leadership. He even went so far as to challenge Hashem’s supreme power and His right to demand His nation’s release. “And Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the L-rd that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the L-rd, nor will I let Israel out’” (Shemos 5:2). Out of desperation, Moshe complained to Hashem, who promised to unleash a barrage of assaults against the stubborn monarch and his people.
Unquestionably, Hashem could easily have compelled the Egyptian ruler to let the Jews out. But that would not have achieved His true purpose of teaching Pharaoh and his people to see the folly in their ways and seek atonement. In the words of Seforno (ibid., 7:3):
Hashem desires the repentance of all men, not their destruction… [His goal was] to bring the Egyptians to teshuvah through showing them His great power… If Hashem had not strengthened his heart, Pharaoh would have released the Jews, but not out of any desire to turn to Hashem… rather out of an inability to stand up to the pressure; and that would not have been teshuvah at all… This was a lesson to Klal Yisrael… to teach that Hashem does go a distance with a human being in order to bring him back to true repentance…
It was only at the end of the parashah, following the seventh plague of barad, hail, that Pharaoh finally acknowledged his error. “So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moshe and Aharon and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The L-rd is the righteous One, and I and my people are the evil ones’” (ibid., 9:27).
“Never before did Pharaoh say that Hashem is just. This was achieved only here at barad” (Tanchuma, Va’eira 20).
What was it about barad that caused this change in attitude? Furthermore, why was the conversation now one of righteous versus evil, rather than a simple admission that Hashem was stronger and the ultimate victor?
A close look at the warning that preceded the plague actually indicates that something special was on the way, something that would force a change in the way Pharaoh approached the Jewish G-d and His people. “This time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth” (Shemos 9:14). Hashem was setting Pharaoh up to clearly expose — to himself and to his nation — the ruler’s rebellious intentions.
If you still tread upon My people, not letting them out, behold, I am going to rain down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its founding until now. And now, send, gather in your livestock and all that you have in the field, any man or beast that is found in the field and not brought into the house the hail shall fall on them, and they will die (ibid., 17-19).
With a clearly articulated option to avoid damage, one would have assumed that Pharaoh and his people would have sheltered their animals. But they did not. “He who did not pay attention to the word of the L-rd left his servants and his livestock in the field” (ibid., 21). “This refers to Pharaoh and his people” (Shemos Rabbah 12:2).
As the plague approached, Pharaoh found himself in a bind. He had committed, ideologically and addictively, to a path of rebellious resistance. “Are we now going to pay attention to Ben-Amram after all this?” (Midrash Shochar Tov, 78:14). He had no choice but to hold out further, knowing good and well that everything left outdoors was doomed. When Hashem’s promise came to pass, Pharaoh was exposed as a true rebel; he had no choice but to admit to the wickedness of his actions and reverse his position. So much so, that this same person would one day rise again as king of Ninveh (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 176), and would serve as a paradigm for proper teshuvah (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42).
Hashem easily could have acted against Pharaoh, swiftly and with finality. But he chose a more circuitous, “righteous” route because he had another objective. He wanted to teach Pharaoh a lesson, and still held out hope, so to speak, that the monarch would repent. He gave him every opportunity to do so on his own, and even orchestrated circumstances in a manner as to make Pharaoh’s true intentions clear, to him and to his people.
A successful leader understands that every person in his organization has his hang-ups, the kinds of things that we stubbornly cling to despite any rational justification. We all have areas where growth is required and sometimes also need to be brought along to see the master vision and understand our role in that context. The goal should never be to punish those who do not seem to want to do the right thing. Rather we should seek to teach, to cajole, and to redirect others along the path of positive change.
Just as Hashem was able to get the most stubborn and ruthless of people to see and acknowledge His righteousness more so than His sheer power, we all have the capacity to inspire others to not only achieve more but to do so in a way that helps them see the folly of their ways in a manner that is constructive and growth-oriented.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is a writer, teacher and leadership aficionado living in Passaic, NJ, with his wife and six children. He can be contacted at email@example.com.