Virtually all the commentaries struggle with this question: If G-d hardened
Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not yield after each punishment, what
justification was there for further punishment? Can a person be punished for
doing something when he had no choice? It may be chutzpah, but I would like to suggest an answer which was not available to the commentaries.
First, G-d did not harden Pharaoh’s heart for the first five plagues. In these the
Torah says, "Pharaoh’s heart was hardened." It was not until the sixth plague that
G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Forty years of working with alcoholics enabled me to understand Pharaoh’s
obstinacy. The alcoholic can suffer blow after blow, each time swearing off drinking:
"I will never touch another drop as long as I live!" Invariably, he resumes drinking
I recall one man whose drinking resulted in severe pancreatitis,
which caused such horrific pain that it was not relieved even by morphine. He cried
bitterly, "If you can only get me over this pain, Doc, I swear I will never, never even
look at alcohol."
Three weeks after being released from the hospital, he was drunk.
Alcoholics who go through the ordeal of a liver transplant may drink at their first
visit outside of the hospital.
Pharaoh acted like a typical alcoholic. When he felt the distress of a plague, he
pleaded with Moses, promising to send out the Israelites. No sooner was the plague removed, than he retracted.
To me, this behavior is not at all unusual.
But what happened with the sixth plague? It appears that if G-d had not hardened
Pharaoh’s heart, he would have yielded. In order to explain this, you must bear with
me while I describe a case.
Jim was a very bright, resourceful young man, who got a job with a major
construction firm. He was so efficient that he received promotion after
promotion, eventually becoming second in command to the CEO at an
unprecedented young age.
Jim drank excessively, and his wife’s appeals fell on deaf ears. When
she told him that she could no longer tolerate it, he said that she was free to
leave. She took their three young daughters and left.
Jim continued to work, but eventually the drinking impaired his
performance. When his peers pointed this out to him, he said, "They’re
just jealous of my position."
One day the CEO fired him.
Jim would sit in the tavern, expecting that any moment a head-hunter
would recruit him to be the CEO of a Fortune-500 firm. He drank away all
his savings, then drank away his home, then drank away his car and
lived on welfare.
At age 49, Jim admitted himself to my hospital. He was down, yet the
next day he signed himself out of the hospital against medical advice.
Two years later, Jim was back.
"I know you’re mad at me, Doc," he
said, "for walking out on you last time."
I said, "Jim, you walked out on yourself, not on me."
Jim nodded. "I’ll do anything you say."
I asked Jim, "What makes you more ready now than two years ago?"
Jim responded, "You know what you get for selling your blood? Sixteen
"When you sell for blood for beer, that is hitting rock-bottom," I said.
Jim shook his head. "No, Doc," he said. "I’ve been doing that for a
"Then what brought you in today rather than a year ago?" I asked.
Jim said, "When I was with the firm, I practically ran the United Way
drive myself. This past week I’ve been panhandling quarters on Liberty
Avenue. I can’t live with that."
Every alcoholic has his individually unique "rock-bottom" which is the
point at which he recovers. Jim’s loss of his family, his home and his car;
sleeping in doorways; and even selling his blood for alcohol were not his
rock-bottom. Begging quarters was.
Here is the crucial point to understand. If, due to pressure, the alcoholic stops
drinking before he has reached his particular rock-bottom, he generally relapses.
Sustained recovery occurs only if the person has reached what was for him rockbottom.
My purpose in this commentary is not to just cite explanations of the Torah, but
rather to derive teachings that we can apply in our own lives.
We all have a bit of the alcoholic’s tendencies within us. We resolve that we will
not repeat a wrong act, and after a period of time elapses, we do it again. Have you
never said, "I will never again allow myseIf to lose my temper like that?" And what
If instead of simply making a promise not to lose control of our temper, we did
some serious, persistent study of the mussar (ethical) works on rage, until we felt so crushed
by the evil of rage that this episode constituted a "rock-bottom," we could make the
necessary character transformation so that we would not subsequently relapse.
should not need to wait for a tragic, destructive "rock-bottom" to bring us to our
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit.