This article is the second of a three-part series; the previous article is: "Why was Pharaoh Punished?".

In our last article, we discussed how Pharaoh lost his free will as punishment for his wickedness. We also clarified the necessity of him receiving this particular punishment - since in this way the Jewish people would remain in Egypt long enough to complete the elevation of the sparks of holiness imbedded there, as well as their own purification in preparation for Mt. Sinai.

The universe …appears superficially to be separate from its Creator

We were still left with the puzzling question of why denying Pharaoh his free choice was necessary. Certainly G‑d had other ways of keeping the Jewish people in Egypt without compromising the principle of free choice!

Step Aside

The universe was created in a way that it appears superficially to be separate from its Creator. Only through deep contemplation does one come to the realization that there is an Infinite Source.

Perceiving the true force manifest in the universe, however, presents an indirect challenge to one’s personal “ego.” If G‑d is the true source of everything, than this realization entails that one must put aside one’s personal agenda and be concerned with G‑d's.

The Amida prayer, therefore, concludes with the petition, “Let my soul be like dust before other people; open my heart to your Torah.” For only through the quality of humility and nullification of ego does one become a fitting receptacle for G‑d’s holiness. ...where an arrogant person stands, both he and I cannot both be present

From this perspective, the ultimate expression of holiness is nullification of one’s will. By allowing one’s own concerns to fade in the face of G‑d’s concerns, one allows G‑d’s presence to be revealed.

It’s Nullification Time

Conversely, ignoring G‑d’s role leads to a feeling that the universe (or a certain part of it) is true existence. This sense of independence constitutes the primary characteristic of idolatry. One who worships an idol does so out of a conviction that the idol is dependent on nothing else other than itself.

An arrogant individual personifies this same quality. The Torah therefore paraphrases G‑d as saying, “In the place where an arrogant person stands, both he and I cannot both be present.”

One way in which G‑d brings about this nullification of self is through physical and/or emotional tribulation. It is difficult to feel crushed and egotistical at the same time. ...spiritual heir of the Primordial Snake that had caused so much trouble to Adam and Eve

This was another dimension of how the Egyptian bondage helped prepare the Jewish people to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Only when they reached the deepest level of self-nullification were they capable of receiving the highest revelation of G‑dliness.

Full of Himself

But G‑d’s revelation was meant to elevate the entire world, not just the Jewish people. Accordingly, the whole world also had to go through a process of nullification in order to facilitate the eventual ubiquitous revelation of G‑dliness.

For this process, Egypt was again the primary focus. As mentioned previously, Egypt was the major repository of holy sparks from the time of creation. As the most powerful ruler in the world, and the primary opponent to holiness, Pharaoh had the dubious distinction of being the spiritual heir of the Primordial Snake that had caused so much trouble to Adam and Eve. Pharaoh is even referred to as a “snake” in the words of the prophets.

And in the area of arrogance, Pharaoh was unmatched. He proclaimed himself a god, claiming to possess even supernatural powers. When Moses first approached him, Pharaoh scoffed, “Who is G‑d, that I should listen to Him?!”

Claiming to transcend the bodily limitations , he would take care of his physical needs in secret to create the impression that he was superhuman. He publicly declared that he had actually created the source of all life in Egypt - the Nile River. He even claimed to have created himself!

In order to prepare the world to receive the holiness at Mt. Sinai, Pharaoh and Egypt needed some very intense work.

Imposed Humility

This came first and foremost in the form of the plagues. Egypt was virtually demolished, as Pharaoh’s servants complained, “Don’t you know that Egypt is destroyed?” Even Pharaoh was forced to abandon his insolent stance, and would agree to let the Jewish people go - only to change his mind again soon after. Frankl [realized] that although the Nazis could totally control his physical existence, they could not control his thoughts

As the arrogance of Pharaoh and the Egyptians eroded, the world automatically became better prepared for the revelation of G‑dliness.

But even as G‑d took destroyed their food and water, their health and sense of security, there was still one thing he did not take away.

The Most Essential Freedom

In the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, G‑d mentions the unique quality of man - that he has the freedom to choose between good and evil.

The ultimate expression of the freedom to choose is manifest in thought, and even the most brutal force cannot abrogate it. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl formulated a whole school of therapy around this concept. When enduring incredible torture in a Nazi concentration camp, he came to the realization that although the Nazis could totally control his physical existence, they could not control his thoughts. They would control the events, but he would decide how to would interpret them. Only he could choose whether the physical suffering would lead him to lose hope or to find meaning in the horrific experience.

He claims that this insight enabled him to keep his hope, and eventually to survive the camps, whereas others lost their will to live and ultimately perished. Once he realized that he had the choice of how he could think, he realized that he was still in possession of the most important feature of being human.

Losing It All

It was precisely this last vestige of control that G‑d took away from Pharaoh. Even as Egypt was being devastated, Pharaoh, in his arrogance, could always come up with an alternate interpretation of the events. And even if he didn’t, the essence of what distinguishes a human being from all other beings was still in his possession.

G‑d therefore brought about the ultimate shattering of Pharaoh’s ego. He stripped him of the most basic element - the last frontier, so to speak - of human control. He stripped away his free will.

This punishment was a “measure for measure” rectification of Pharaoh’s sin. He claimed to be the most powerful being in the universe. From his perspective, even G‑d had no control over anything.

"Measure for measure," however, G‑d showed Pharaoh that it was he who didn’t have control even over himself.

This represented the consummate nullification of Pharaoh’s egoistic excesses. By denying Pharaoh his free will, G‑d broke his coarseness and thereby prepared the world to become G‑d’s “garden” of holiness.

Up until now, we have addressed how and why Pharaoh was denied his free choice. We are still left with the question, however, regarding the scope of Pharaoh’s punishment. Was he punished only for his previous sins, before his free choice was taken away, or was he held responsible for his later actions as well?

In our next article, we will discuss Pharaoh’s punishment for his behavior after G‑d had “hardened his heart.”

In our next article, Opening Closed Doors, we will discuss Pharaoh’s punishment for his behavior after G‑d had “hardened his heart.”

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