Parshat Va’era: Abuse and the Hardening of the Hearts

When someone inflicts widespread, deep and recurring damage on others, are they able to repent? Is teshuvah always open to us, irrespective of the severity and repetitiveness of our actions? Parshat Va’era raises this issue, and the commentators provide answers with particular relevance today. 

Before Moshe goes to Pharaoh the second time, God says explicitly, “I [G-d] will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” How could Pharaoh be punished if he was unable to choose whether or not to sin? Does this mean that for some sinners, the gates of repentance are locked?

The midrash teaches that Pharaoh had free will and the option to repent during the first five plagues. Yet, after he was given ample opportunity to repent and refused to do so, G-d subsequently denied him the possibility of teshuvah. This midrash keys into a subtle difference in language in the Torah. For the first 5 plagues it states “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened,” while after that it states that “God hardened his heart.” Why should someone lose the possibility of repenting? Rambam and Ramban both comment that Pharaoh had free will but then lost it as a consequence of his own actions. Pharaoh’s sins — the abuse and enslavement of an entire people — were so serious that God removed his ability to repent. 

This week, Israeli media reported numerous cases of abusers. Most prominently, Chaim Walder died by suicide after his abuse was made public and judgement was passed in rabbinic court. I couldn’t help wondering whether repentance is possible for those who inflict widespread and recurring damage on others. Perhaps the hearts of sinners are never fully hardened, unless Hashem so decides. 

At the same time, as reports of abuse recur and our initial shock wears off, we must not let our own hearts harden – by becoming indifferent to the victims. We must help past victims, work harder to prevent these crimes and create a better future for our children. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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