The Irony of G-d Answering the Wicked's Prayer

Dear Rabbi:

A number of years ago I took my family and went to the Museum of the City of New York to see an exhibit entitled “when New York City ruled the baseball world”, which took in the years between 1949 and 1956 wherein one its baseball teams (the New York Yankees, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers), usually the Yankees, won the World Series and during most of those years, two of those teams made it to the Fall Classic.
My most vivid memory was the part of the exhibit that gave a depiction of the three game National League playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, which would determine which of the two teams, would meet the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history, the last game ended with the “shot heard round the World” when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants concluded the playoff with probably the most famous homerun in baseball history from a pitch thrown by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher, Ralph Branca. That homerun was matched by the most famous sport’s call ever by an announcer, when Russ Hodges, the Giants’ announcer went ballistic screaming over and over into the mike, “The Giants win the pennant, The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant…”
The recording of this broadcast was part of the exhibit but what was equally fascinating was the recording of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ announcer of what had just happened.  The Dodgers announcer was Red Barber, who without any emotion said, "Branca pumps, delivers – a curve, swung on and belted, deep shot to left field—it is—a home run! And the New York Giants win the National League pennant and the Polo Grounds goes wild!" This was followed by what seemed to be a minute or two of stone silence from Mr. Barber, with the roar of the Polo Grounds (the Giants’ stadium) crowd going wild over what they had just witnessed being the only sounds that were heard.
What does any of the above have to do with today’s parshah? Well we know the Hebrew account of Moses and the plagues as detailed in the Torah.
If I may over simplify the events, G‑d reveals Himself to Moses and tells him that through G-d, Moses will deliver the Israelites from their enslavement, redeem them, and acquire them as His own chosen people at “Mount Sinai”; G-d will then bring them to the land G-d promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage.
Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G‑d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve G-d in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake and swallows the magic sticks of the Egyptian sorcerers. G‑d then sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians.
The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the landlice infest all men and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; a pestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians. For the seventh plague, fire and ice combine to descend from the skies as a devastating hail. Still, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the children of Israel go, as G‑d had said to Moses.”
A fascinating set of events to say the least, which have been a source of inspiration and pride for the Jewish people throughout our long history, but what is the Egyptian view of what happened?
There is an Egyptian stone lion in the British Museum that bears the throne name of Khyan, who ruled from about 1610-1580 B.C.  It is only about 20 inches long, but as far as historians know, it is the largest item in the Museum from the XVth dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs — the Hyksos rulers.
The Hyksos were foreigners.  Some of the knowledge of the Hyksos comes from Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the 3rd century B.C. who wrote a history of Egypt.  He suggested that the Hyksos came to power after a military invasion, but no one knows for certain.
Some Bible scholars think that Joseph’s Pharaoh was one of the Hyksos rulers, but the Biblical evidence fits better with the view that a Hyksos Pharaoh was the “king who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).
The Hyksos rulers were eventually driven out and why not blame their rule for the events that led to the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The point is, the Egyptian account of what happened is somewhat sketchy and the overall silence of what occurred speaks volumes. All that really “rings out” is the “roar” of the Israelite crowd as they are being led out of bondage.
The above is my overall assessment of what we will be reading this week and next as it relates to the ten plagues and what happened as a result of the miraculous events, but I have a few questions as it relates to this week’s parshah. Actually what I am going to first ask started last week in Parshah Shemot.
Pharaoh is the ruler of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth at the time of the Exodus and here we read that Moses and Aaron can walk into his palace and make demands to “let my people go”. If the events of this past week have taught us anything, it is that maybe for a short while, some deranged group can storm a capital building and rain havoc, but eventually they are beaten back by a superior force.
I will give a pass to Moses, as a former “prince of Egypt”, being able to gain an audience with what is either his step father or maybe a step brother or cousin (Moses being eighty when he walks in, I find it hard to think that the Pharaoh that was alive when Moses was born is still in charge, but as you have pointed out on many an occasion, time periods as presented in the Torah are somewhat vague) but even that event is the basis for many a question.
For starters, wouldn’t the first question out of Pharaoh’s lips to Moses have been, "whatever happened to you?" This should have been followed with, "where did you get off killing an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave?" Remember, Moses left in a hurry because he believed he would have been dealt with severely had word of what he had done, gotten back to Pharaoh.
Assuming arguendo that these questions were asked and Pharaoh let “bygones be bygones”, after the second or third plague, why doesn’t Pharaoh say, "enough is enough, get out of my house and if you dare step foot in here again, you will be killed."
Trying to anticipate your response as maybe being, G-d was protecting Moses every step of the way, this leads to the even bigger question of why all of it was necessary? I will make this easy for you as well by anticipating that your response might be that G-d had to put on a “show” to: 1) prove to the Israelites that G-d is their protector and savior and: 2) that Moses is to be taken seriously as G-d’s emissary. Remember only last week, the leaders of the Israelites did not believe that Moses could lead them out of their dilemma. 
This leads to questions related as to how this played out. As I was taught a long time ago, Pharaoh hardened his own heart through the first five plagues which led to more and more problems for him and his Egyptian subjects. As I was further taught, Pharaoh thought of himself as a god and had to be shown by the real deity that he was only a man and had no “higher authority”.
Pharaoh “hardening” his own heart does not jibe with what is stated in the Third Aliyah (Exodus 7:3) wherein the following is stated:
But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.”
Thus, from the very beginnings of Exodus, some of what most of us believe has no real validity. This becomes even more confusing in that from “the serpent”, to “blood in the Nile”, to “frogs”, Pharaoh’s magicians could match what was being done by Moses and Aaron, but by the time “lice afflicts even the magicians”, and they tell Pharaoh that this cannot be matched by them, the written words of the Torah seem to infer that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. This carried on with “wild beasts” and the “killing of the domestic animals”, but by “boils” the following is stated in Exodus 9:12:
“But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not hearken to them, as the Lord spoke to Moses.”
Not to further complicate things but the following is stated in Exodus 9:34 and 35 as it relates to “fire and hail” coming down from the sky:
“And Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased; so he continued to sin, and he strengthened his heart, he and his servants.
And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not let the children of Israel go out, as the Lord had spoken through the hand of Moses.”
This seems to indicate that it was Pharaoh himself that had his heart hardened. So to encapsulate this, plagues 1-5 seem to be Pharaoh doing the “hardening” himself but this conclusion seems contrary to Exodus 7:3, which is further complicated by the 6th plague where it is translated in Exodus 9:12 that it was the “Lord” that hardened his heart, followed by the 7th plague, which leaves us with the ambiguity of who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
What is your take on all of this? Let’s leave plagues 8 through 10 for next week. 

Dear Mordecai,  

Once again, you demonstrate your skill as a sermonizer. The baseball introduction is superb. (As a point of fact, while I may be ignorant of the TV personalities you mention, my grasp of baseball is pretty good, so I know about Branca and Thompson.)  It caught my attention, and I didn’t know where you were going with it until you wrote, “But what is the Egyptian view of what happened?”

This is a terrific question, and I would add that it is relevant to today. A couple in our congregation traveled to Egypt before the pandemic, and the Egyptians are still talking about what their perspective on the Exodus is. In this case, they tried to deny that the event actually occurred. How embarrassing being an Egyptian must be given how famous the Bible is.

This is such an awesome line: “All that really “rings out” is the “roar” of the Israelite crowd as they are being led out of bondage.”

As for what transpired in the dialogue between Pharaoh and Moses, what is recorded in the Torah is, as we both know, not all that may have occurred. Perhaps then Pharaoh did ask Moses, “Whatever happened to you?” This is an opportunity for – wait for it – Midrash!

You have introduced me to a new term: arguendo.

Now we have the question, Why doesn’t Pharaoh kill Moses especially after the first couple of plagues? I like that you anticipate my response. What you frame as my response – that Moses needs to earn being taken seriously as G-d’s emissary – is a good answer. I would add that killing Moses still would not have stopped the plagues since G-d, not Moses, brought them; but I think the reason Pharaoh did not kill Moses is that Pharaoh was still trying to cast him as an irrelevant pipsqueak, and arresting or killing him would have betrayed that Pharaoh was shaken.

To your next question, Why did G-d draw out the plagues as He did instead of just freeing Israel in one superb act. The reason, as you suggest, is to heighten the drama. Remember that the Bible is Torah, but it is also literature. Because we know the gist of the story from such an early age, we can hardly imagine what reading the account of Pharaoh and plagues is like for an adult who is new to the Bible. Imagine being an African in the nineteenth century who is given the Bible by a Christian missionary and is therefore reading its content for the first time. Drama heightens the effect. The angle that you are focused on, I know, is the suffering. Is heightening drama worth all that suffering? That is where thinking of the Bible as literature is useful.  

And we arrive here. You write: “So to encapsulate this, plagues 1-5 seem to be Pharaoh doing the ‘hardening’ himself but this conclusion seems contrary to Exodus 7:3, which is further complicated by the 6th plague where it is translated in Exodus 9:12 that it was the ‘Lord’ that hardened his heart, followed by the 7th plague, which leaves us with the ambiguity of who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart.”

You know how I feel about ambiguity…

Here’s my take: When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, G-d is not involved. When G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart that is because G-d is responding to Pharaoh’s prayer. Pharaoh prays for strength, and the Source of Strength delivers it to him. Note that by this point, Goshen is set apart, and the Israelites don’t suffer from the plagues any longer, so you can’t say that G-d answering Pharaoh’s prayer harmed the Israelites. G-d’s answering did harm the Egyptians, but they were not innocents, being complicit in Pharaoh’s wickedness.



Dear Rabbi, 

Not that it matters but they were radio calls, not what was stated on television. I love baseball on radio, which allows me to add my imagination to what is going on as described in detail by those that convey it. That made those recordings all the more enjoyable. To hear the contrast, put my mind back to what was going on in 1951. 

 Your comment as to Egyptians today denying the events of what occurred does not in any way surprise me. Check accounts from Jew haters today and their denial of the Holocaust ever taking place. 

 If you think the conversation between Pharaoh and Moses is worthy of a Midrash, then I invite you to make it.  

 I generally do not incorporate legal terms into a general conversation, but it means "for the sake of this conversation, assume all that is being stated is true."

 My initial answer, as if given by you, stated that G-d protected Moses so that the plagues could be carried out. Moses or some other person was needed to carry this to an end. It would not have worked if G-d just delivered the plagues directly. Human beings need to be told how things are being done, and without Moses acting as the intermediary, the full meaning of what was going on would not have come across.  This will become even more apparent as the Moses saga plays out in the rest of the Torah. 

 This can be seen in this week's parshah as well as the next one that concludes the plagues. I don't think those that were there at the time, I mean the Israelites, would have fully comprehended what was going on if they could leave after only a few of the unbelievable acts had taken place. Again, not wanting to get ahead of myself, but this is a theme that plays out over and over again as it relates to those being led out of bondage. 



Dear Mordecai, 

I think what’s interesting, though, about Egyptians denying the events of the past is that they’re not the same people. Most Egyptians today are Arabs, and the Egyptians of the Exodus were not Arabs. The population changes in Egypt over the millennia have been significant, yet somehow they treat this as a personal affront. I guess that’s nationalism.

I think I know what you’re alluding to as far as what will happen down the line and how that relates to why Moses needed to be present and instrumental for the execution of the plagues. The Golden Calf, I may have said elsewhere, is about bnei yisrael recognizing that Moses is not God. Or do you think they already knew that? Then why would the GC incident be included?

Then, I think I understand you to say that the plagues – namely their number – were pedagogical.

Shalom, Rabbi