In this week’s reading, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon to show Pharoah the miraculous signs that prove Moshe is speaking on G-d’s Command, and Pharoah must indeed let the Jews go free to worship. G-d predicts that Pharoah will test them in this way: “when Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, give for yourselves a sign, you will say to Aharon, take the staff and toss it down before Pharaoh, and it will be a snake” [7:9].
And this is exactly what happens. Pharoah demands the sign, and Aharon provides it. Pharaoh then calls upon his magicians, who similarly make their sticks transform — but then Aharon’s rod consumes theirs [7:12]. And Rashi says that Aharon’s staff did so not while it was a snake, but after it had turned back into a staff, as the verse says: “and the staff of Aharon consumed their staves.”
In other words, what Moshe and Aharon were able to do immediately went beyond the capabilities of ordinary tricks and even black magic. It was clear that they had delivered precisely the sign for which Pharaoh had asked, and yet Pharaoh did not respond. He did not allow the Jews to go, because his ego and previous beliefs forced him to deny reality.
People often ask why it was fair that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to permit the Jews to go. But our rabbis explain that G-d hardening Pharaoh’s heart did not force his refusal, but, on the contrary, preserved Pharaoh’s freedom to choose. The miracles and plagues were so overwhelming that any rational person would have been forced to release the Jews and avoid further destruction.
In the beginning, it was not so. The signs were there, and the signs were clear, but the signs were not so overwhelming as to deny Pharoah his freedom of choice without special Divine Intervention.
I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, in 1991. Dozens of SCUD missiles were fired at Israel’s cities. A single missile hit an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty-five soldiers and wounding nearly 100 more. Yet only one or two Israelis were killed by all of the missiles that were fired.
And the stories were legion.
A building collapsed, and a survivor was left with only his head visible above the rubble. When they extracted him, he was completely unharmed.
A neighborhood had just completed a new and improved bomb shelter. But when the sirens went off, everyone ran to the old one by habit. Not a single person went to the new shelter, although everyone knew it was available to them. The new and empty shelter sustained a direct hit and was completely destroyed.
A pair of young men were living in a Tel Aviv apartment, aware of their elderly neighbor in the next building who needed help getting around. Hearing the sirens, they spontaneously decided to run to their neighbor to help instead of staying in their own sealed room. The missile landed directly in front of their building, destroying their apartment. They were caught outside between the buildings, but were entirely shielded from the blast.
Those were the stories. And a pair of obviously religious Yeshiva students were in a taxi in Jerusalem, driven by an older, bareheaded driver, as the radio played an interview of a woman who had survived one of the missile attacks. The reporter asked her what she thought of all the miraculous events, and she said “miracles? What miracles? We just got lucky!”
At that point the taxi driver said loudly, “she’s still in shock. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’ll come to her senses and realize what’s going on!”
We should not expect to be shown signs so overwhelming that, like Pharoah, we would be forced to concede without Divine Intervention. But if we look around us, we can perceive the signs we need, even in events much less significant than the explosions of SCUD missiles. Stay on the lookout, and they are not difficult to see, and always inspirational when we find them.