Bo 5780 – Pharaoh was Actually a Prisoner. Are You?

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

In the Talmud, we read, “At first, the evil impulse is called a wayfarer, then a guest, finally a master.” Another rabbi says, “At first, the evil impulse is as thin as a spider’s gossamer thread, but in the end it is as thick as a cart-rope.” Why this tendency for evil impulses to grow stronger?

Recall that last week, in the first five plagues, the text tells us that Pharaoh hardens his own heart – he is stubborn, and refuses to free the Israelites. There is a shift in the language, though, after these first plagues. Beginning with the sixth plague, it is Gd who does the work, “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart.  And in today’s parashah, this trend continues. In all, we read about Pharaoh’s hard heart 20 times!! The evil impulse has indeed become quite strong in Pharaoh! But if it was Gd who acted to harden Pharaoh’s heart, why should Pharaoh be punished? How can Gd punish Pharaoh for acts that were not of his own volition?

Teachings across the entire spectrum of Jewish observance seem to agree that each time Pharaoh acts to “harden his heart” and sins, he gives up a bit more of his own free will. He becomes hardened in his response, more set in his ways, more stubborn. He thus becomes less likely to exercise free will by changing behavior and his directives.

Some find the active “Hand of Gd” behind Pharaoh’s decisions and the ultimate cosmic justice for this “nogoodnick.” For others, Pharaoh’s decisions are simply the nature of human behavior – the way we were created. Gd simply created humans in such a way that, just as one mitzvah might lead to the next, one act of immorality might lead to yet another.

For both of these paradigms – the “Gd-centric” model and the “That’s just the way Gd created the world” model, we come to the same conclusion. Pharaoh repeatedly. . does. . evil. Eventually, sinful behavior can become irreversible, and there is no hope for repentance.

In the second model – the one I favor – change, repentance, is unlikely. Ultimately, Pharaoh no longer enjoys real freedom of choice. He is almost magnetically drawn to a fate of his own making. He may have been free to be generous or evil at the beginning of the whole process, but by the end, his self-destructive choices became inevitable. Rather than claiming that Gd directly caused all the grief that was to befall the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s choices, we can use some teachings from social psychology to explain Pharaoh’s seemingly irrational behavior. And those teachings can help us in our everyday lives.

Pharaoh incorporated a number of cognitive biases, which are tendencies to think in a particular way. They afflict many of us, resulting in our victimizing ourselves with poor decisions. Here are a few.

First: optimism bias – the tendency to underestimate the probability of undesirable outcomes and overestimating favorable outcomes. Pharaoh never dreamed that the plagues would continue. After all, why would he – he had never experienced such things before. He might have said, “Hey, we got through the frogs, the boils on the cattle and the locusts. What else can possibly go wrong?” That’s optimism bias.

He had the illusion of control, overestimating what control he himself exerted over the situation. Frogs and gnats all over the place? “Call the Egyptian Exterminator Company to get rid of these pests!” Then, everything will be OK.”

He had a normalcy bias – refusing to plan for or react to an event that had never happened before. “Hmmm 3 days of darkness . . . this was probably just some unexplained fluke!” Ya think?!?!

Finally, he was oblivious to the sunk cost effect – a loss that had already been incurred and was unlikely to be recovered. This is akin to planning for and paying for a trip to, say, New Orleans, which then came under a hurricane watch. The money is already gone, whether or not we worsen our own situation by making the trip. Pharaoh made his situation worse by continually doubling down on his investment. He might have said, “After going through what we’ve gone through, we can’t possibly let the Hebrews go now!” Pharaoh should have been told that no situation is so bad that it can’t get worse.

Poor guy! How could he have possibly made any choice other than to keep the Israelites in servitude? Then, of course, came the 10th plague. And all those biases worked against him, culminating in catastrophe.

Ah yes, the tenth plague. A pause in our discussion about biases for a moment. I’m not letting ole Moses off the hook here. What did Abraham do when Gd planned the destruction of Sodom? Right – he used the “what if there are 50 good people there?” argument. What about Moses? When Gd told him that the last plague would be the killing of each and every first born male, Moses told his fellow Israelites, “That’ll be just swell – they will HAVE to let us leave then!” Moses was no Abraham. Alright – Moses did some pretty good things later, so I guess he’s OK, but still . . . “Gd, do you really have to kill all these children to make your point?” Right?

Now – back to the subject at hand. Can becoming aware of biases that many of us harbor help us in how we get along with others and with the world? Here are a few dangerous cognitive biases – tendencies of how we think – that may get in the way of interpersonal relationships.

Confirmation bias – we develop a narrative and use snippets of evidence to confirm our suspicions and feelings, while ignoring other items that might refute this feeling. “She didn’t call me when I was sick,” while not recalling other, pleasant and considerate encounters.

Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do or believe things because many others do the same.

Empathy gap – the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or in others. “Ah, so-and-so is overly sensitive. I didn’t mean anything by it!”

Hostile attribution bias – the tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.

So what about us? Do we have feelings and thoughts about people or situations in which we display a “hardened heart?”

Is it possible to change our minds about something? Can we overcome these biases and other psychological traps and withstand the financial or social stature costs that ensue when we change our minds? An entire episode on one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics, covered the subject of changing one’s mind – it’s certainly not easy to do. Can we muster the moral courage to change our minds? To swim against a tide that we ourselves may have created?

We see this so often. I can’t tell you how many people I come across who harbor this type of stubbornness, of “hardening their heart.” Wanda is a patient of mine who had become estranged from her sister, who lived in Kansas. Estranged because a whole lot of these biases were at play – hostile attribution bias, confirmation bias, etc. The sister had no other family, and when she became very sick with ovarian cancer, Wanda magnanimously took her into her home. Wanda came back for her 6-month visit. The sister, meanwhile, had died. I couldn’t help but ask, “All that time in your home after so many years of estrangement. What did you talk about?” Wanda choked back tears. “Missed opportunities,” she said.

Pirkei Avot, 4:1: “Who is mighty? We are mighty when we can conquer ourselves.” Pharaoh brought about his own punishment. The Israelites were slaves who ultimately enjoyed freedom. Pharaoh was a free man who became his own slave.