The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 13) cites Reish Lakish as offering an explanation for the Torah’s account of God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that he refused to allow Benei Yisrael to leave Egypt.  Reish Lakish explained that once God repeatedly warns a sinner to repent, and the sinner refuses, God withholds from him the possibility of repentance.  Thus, after God repeatedly warned Pharaoh of calamity if he refused to release the slaves, and Pharaoh remained defiant, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12).  This Midrashic passage serves as an early source for the Rambam’s famous comments in Hilkhot Teshuva (6:3) that a person guilty of especially grievous sins, or who sins consistently for a prolonged period, can be punished by being denied the ability to change.

Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef (Parashat Bo), explains on this basis the symbolic significance of the plague of hail – the first plague brought upon Pharaoh after God hardened his heart.  As the Torah describes (9:24), this plague included fire, which miraculously descended from the heavens together with the ice pellets.  Already Rashi, citing the Midrash, noted the miraculous “harmony” that was maintained between the ice and fire, which would normally clash with one another.  Rav Salant suggested that this miracle symbolized the phenomenon of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  Ordinarily, “fire” – crisis and suffering – has the ability to “melt” even the hardest hearts.  A person facing a dire situation or experiencing pain and hardship should naturally feel humbled and subdued, and hence more susceptible to positive change.  The supernatural cooperation between the ice and fire during the plague of hail thus symbolized the supernatural hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, as the “fire” of crisis and calamity failed to “melt” his heart and force him into submission as it normally would.

The metaphor of fire and water in this context reminds us that under ordinary circumstances, the “ice” within us is susceptible to “melting.”  Our hearts are, naturally, “frozen” and resistant to change.  We prefer remaining within our comfort zone, and respond to calls for change with suspicion or intimidation.  By nature, we want to continue being who we are, like a solid piece of ice.  But just as God decreed that ice should melt in response to heat, He likewise decreed that our hearts are capable of softening.  It is only under extraordinary circumstances, such as in the case of Pharaoh, when God miraculously keeps a sinner’s heart “frozen,” just as He kept the ice pellets frozen during the plague of hail.  But in all other circumstances, He grants us the ability to “melt,” to change our hearts and our conduct and improve ourselves – even though our initial instinct to remain “frozen.”  And so if we ever feel as though we are “frozen” in place, when we find ourselves “stuck” in negative habits and tendencies, we must remember that we just need the right amount of “heat” to “melt” the “ice” and allow us to change.  Different forms of “heat” will work for different people, but the first, most vital step is to acknowledge that it can happen.  We must therefore never despair, and instead continue working, patiently and steadily, confident in our ability to eventually make the changes that we know we need to make in our hearts and in our behavior.

Originally posted on VBM

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