The Rest is Commentary

Vayera Drash by Alexander Fellman

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה

But Hashem hardened pharaoh’s heart.


There is a concept among Christians called the unforgivable sin, the sin that God will never allow repentance for. In most churches, it is the denial of the holy spirit; tantamount to rejection not just of God, but of God’s grace and his willingness to provide said grace.

Judaism has no such generally accepted sin. T’shuva, repentance, is always available to those who seek it. On Yom Kippur, we gather to both seek t’shuva and praise Hashem for his offering it to us.

So, why was Pharaoh’s heart hardened? Moshe Rabeinu gave Pharaoh every opportunity to repent, but Hashem told him from the beginning that not only would Pharaoh reject him, but that Hashem would harden Pharaoh. Pharaoh, then, was forced to disobey the will of the Lord, and to bring calamity upon Mitzraim.


There are two things we might look to.

First, our Rabbis teach us that every man is free to do that which is good. Even those who are condemned for the worst sins may turn aside the evil decree, as the book of Jonah shows, should they hear the call to redemption and choose to accept it. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been undone, had but ten good people been there, and who knows but that had Avraham Avinu continued to bargain, one good man might have been enough!

Hashem might make our yetzer hara stronger for a time, but we are always able to prove ourselves stronger than our worst inclinations. And even when our hearts are hardened, the right thing to do remains the right thing to do. Pharoah could have ignored his hatred, and his fear, and the coldness of his heart, and still have released the Jews.

Second, for T’shuva to have meaning, it must be sincere. We are not promising to do better in future, because we must always do what is right, promises or not. We are sincerely repenting our sins past, expressing our regret for the sins themselves and the weakness that prompts them.

What does Pharaoh do when he finally does release the Jews, and Hashem’s will is no longer upon him? Does he truly repent his evil deeds? Or acknowledge their evil? No, he gathers an army and pursues the Jews, thinking only to bring the Jews back to their chains.

Pharaoh’s repentance is but a sham, if he repents at all. Were he to have simply given the Jews their freedom, we might have thought him a better man than he was, and praise him for his mercy. By making it harder for him to incline to what is right, he was forced to reveal himself for his true self.

As to why the Egyptians must suffer for the sins of their rulers… Were the Egyptians so noble that they must not? We suffered for the sins of our kings, and so have many others besides, because when a King sins before his people, and his people speak not to him of righteousness, they show Hashem they fear their king more than they love truth; a king is not, or was not in those days, a man but was also their first representative and the embodiment of the nation, and as when we suffered our kings to sin we were punished, so too were the Egyptians.

The lesson is simple. Do what is right. Even when you are not inclined to it. Our great teacher, Hillel the Elder , taught from the book of Vayikra: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

We are given great power both to do what is right and to learn what righteousness is. May we all be so fortunate as to do so.

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