My mom pointed out that last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo (that’s Exodus 10:1 to 13:16 for you non-regular shul-goers), contains an intriguing apology. In this part of the Bible, Moses is asking Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves leave Egypt. Pharaoh is not digging the plan. So God starts sending down plagues.
The week’s reading picks up with locusts. Bad locusts. Locusts that “settled within all the territory of Egypt in a thick mass; never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again. They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened; and they ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left, so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt.” Hardcore. So what happens next? To quote the text:
Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I stand guilty before the Lord your God and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that He but remove this death from me.”
Pharaoh’s apology comes quickly. (Granted, locusts will do that to a guy.) He admits culpability; he does not use the mistakes-were-made passive voice. He asks for forgiveness, and he seems to understand that he — who has treated Moses imperiously in the past — is now in a supplicant position, a position he deserves. He doesn’t name the offense he is apologizing for (slavery, refusing to free said slaves) or discuss its impact (suffering, for both the Hebrews and his own punished-by-God people), but given the terseness of dialogue in scripture in general, it’s a pretty impressive apology.
Moses promptly goes to plead Pharaoh’s case with God. God sends away the locusts, but then God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart.” (“Hardens” is the usual translation of the Hebrew word חזק — pronounced ”chazak” — the root means strong or strength; the Tanakh I linked to translates it as “stiffens.”) And Pharaoh’s resolve to hang on to his slaves becomes more powerful, and “he would not let the Israelites go.”
We know how this plays out — a bunch more plagues; slaying of the first born; OK FINE GET OUT; stop, don’t, come back; chase chase chase; parting of Red Sea; splash splash splash; YAY HEBREWS ARE SAVED WHOO. (Don’t get too psyched, Israelites. Spoiler alert: Now you wander in the desert for 40 years.)
There’s lots of theological discussion (by both Jews and Christians) of this “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart” business. It happens several times in the story. Hello, free will? Why is Pharaoh punished for things that aren’t strictly his own choices? Why would God make Pharaoh, the Egyptians and the Hebrews suffer longer than strictly necessary? There’s one theory that Pharaoh’s apology isn’t real — that he’s just saying whatever he has to say to get the locusts and other plagues to go away. In this interpretation, Moses is Oprah and Pharaoh is Lance Armstrong. So when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the theory goes, God is making sure Pharaoh doesn’t get the easy out. Pharaoh’s gotta work; he’s gotta think about true penitence, as opposed to the avoidance of punishment, for his apology to be meaningful. See how well that worked for Lance. (This theory, by the way, is posited by our old friend Maimonides, who wrote quite a bit about apologies.) Another interpretation is that when God “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart, the intention is positive; God is actually proffering the opportunity to do the right thing.
You can read a lot of theories about what the text mean, which is a surefire indication that the text is troubling.
I’m no rabbi. I’m going to confine myself to looking at the words of Pharaoh’s apology to Moses. And to me, that apology is decent, especially in context — the context of a document that tends to be terse and minimalist. Add a sentence indicating awareness of the pain caused and the consequences engendered, and you could do worse than emulate Pharaoh. Just hope no one hardens your heart, and don’t be a jerk and harden your own in an attempt to avoid embarrassment, fear of litigation or the loss of hand.