Pharaoh stubbornly disregarded G-d’s overwhelming power shown to him and his people through the plagues. Since Pharaoh so severely misused his freedom of choice, G-d took it away from him. Therefore, from the fifth plague on, although under normal circumstances Pharaoh would have conceded and let the Jews out, since he had abused his power of free will, G-d hardened his heart in order to further display His power over the forces He exhibited in all of the ten plagues.
A participant in a class I gave this week, asked if this was just.
Firstly, the verse states that all the ways of G-d are just. There are times when G-d demonstrates His compassion and pity and there are times that He shows His power of justice. Even when G-d exercises justice He blends it with mercy and kindness.
If we look at the format G-d used when bringing the plagues we see that G-d interspersed them with compassion. There were warning periods, and the plagues did not last long. While the first eight plagues lasted for seven days each, there was a three-week warning with the details of the impending plague described. Despite the precision and accuracy of the plague, and despite Pharaoh’s own magicians declaring that some of the plagues were definitely caused by G-d, still, Pharaoh remained stubborn and refused to admit to G-d’s terms to release the Jews.
Before the seventh plague of hail mixed with fire, Moshe warned Pharaoh about the upcoming plague. Moshe told something astounding to Pharaoh. “Now gather in your livestock and everything you have in the field; all the people and animals. Anything that is not taken indoors will be killed by the plague.” There were those that heeded Moshe’s warning and there were those who did not.
At this point, you would think that the Egyptians would have learned their lesson. Yet, they were just as stubborn as Pharaoh, even at their own expense.
During this plague Pharaoh did cave in and admitted, “G-d is the Tzadik / righteous and I and my people are the wicked.” Because of this bold statement, later, the Egyptians were rewarded to be buried on the banks of the Red Sea. However, once the plague stopped, Pharaoh immediately reneged and stood his ground and refused to let the Jews out.
The Torah relates that Moshe, through the directives of G-d, asked Pharaoh to release all the Jews for a three-day period so that they can serve G-d and slaughter sacrifices to Him.
During the fourth plague, when wild beasts were roaming throughout Egypt causing destruction and terrifying them, Pharaoh called Moshe and conceded to allow the Jews to sacrifice to their G-d within the land of Egypt. Moshe responded that it would not be proper to sacrifice lamb and sheep which were the deity of the Egypt, saying, “If we do so, will they not wish to stone us?” Moshe told Pharaoh we want to travel a distance of three days and serve G-d there.
Pharaoh agreed, and Moshe prayed to G-d to end the plague. When it ended, Pharaoh’s stubbornness took hold of him and he defaulted on his word.
Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum quotes the great Chasam Sofer o.b.m. who explains that Moshe knew that at this point the Egyptians were powerless, and really there was no fear that if the Jews would sacrifice in Egypt, that the Egyptians would harm and stone them.
Our holy leader Moshe was concerned that if the Egyptians would witness the Jews slaughtering their deity, they would become so infuriated, angered and enraged that they would want to stone the Jews – although they would not have the power to do so. This unnecessary frustration of the Egyptians would not be appropriate since the Jews had an alternative to worship G-d away from the sight of the Egyptians.
Moshe used the words, Lo Nachon – it is not good conduct on our part to act in a manner that would cause additional psychological pain to the Egyptians. Indeed, the Egyptians deserved much punishment, commensurate with the extreme hardship and pain they caused by enslavingd the Jews, but still, Moshe felt that this type of suffering was unwarranted and unnecessary since they had an alternative.
Moshe was not only chosen as the leader, teacher, and mentor of the Jewish people for his devotion to G-d and His word, he was also chosen for his sterling character. He showed us that even in the most hostile environment and during the brutal conflict dealing with Pharaoh, the most callous and deceptive tyrant, still, it was paramount to Moshe that he be sensitive to the plight of human beings and to avoid causing them unnecessary pain when there was a reasonable alternative.