In this week’s parasha, Va’Era, Hashem prophetically tells Moshe that He will strike the Egyptians with plagues. In that context, He tells Moshe that He will harden Paroh’s heart and increase His signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. Then, then the Jews would be redeemed from Egypt.
It is difficult to understand why Hashem hardened Paroh’s heart only to then increase the plagues. What purpose did it serve?
Rabbenu Ovadiah Seforno answers this question and explains that one of the aims of the plagues was to demonstrate Hashem’s greatness. Through this demonstration, the Egyptians and Paroh would ideally recognize Hashem and repent from their idolatrous and cruel ways. However, Paroh stubbornly refused to repent – even through the early plagues. Hashem hardened Paroh’s heart and numbed him to the pain of the plagues. In other words, Hashem did not allow the pain of the plagues to be the cause of Paroh releasing the Jews from Egypt. If Paroh released the Jews, Hashem wanted it to be because he had genuinely repented and released them out of his recognition of Hashem and His omnipotence.
Throughout his commentary on the Torah, Seforno generally focuses on explaining the verses. However, in this context, Seforno includes an ethical lesson that we can take from this interpretation.
The basic lesson in ethics we derive from all this is that when suffering an affliction we must first and foremost examine our past actions to find out where we went wrong, and try to find out what these afflictions are intended to trigger in our memory so that we can improve our conduct both vis-à-vis G’d and our fellow man.
This lesson is very powerful for us and for our children. Sometimes, the bad things just happen – and the bad could not have been avoided. However, many times, bad things that happen to us are caused by our own mistakes. Our Rabbis teach a person should react to suffering by examining one’s actions. Our Rabbis are pointing out that we should look at suffering, bad things and pain as a possible symptom of a cause which we created. If the bad just happened then there is nothing to do but try to cope with the pain. However, if we ourselves are the cause of the pain, like the case of Paroh and the plagues, we should be introspective and improve and use the opportunity for growth.