In the previous two parshiyos, the question arises regarding Pharaoh’s ultimate responsibility for his actions owing to G-d “hardening his heart” repeatedly from the sixth plague on, after his repeated displays of instransigence of his own free will. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his treatment of the question in Parshas Va’era lists several commentators who discuss and delineate how and why this ostensible Divine interference with “free will” did or did not violate the principle of bechira.
Then Rabbi Goldin takes it one step further: based upon the Maimonidean principle that Heaven will occasionally make it very difficult if not impossible for an offender to repent. Rabbi Goldin addresses two specific issues: the first, that there are seem sins that are so grievously injurious that the notion that one can repent for them will is well-nigh offensive; the Pharaonic racist enslavement and genocide would qualify as one of those sins. (To provide a crude yet illustrative analogy, in his novel “Cat’s Cradle”, Kurt Vonnegut observes one of his characters—a Nazi doctor who committed innumerable atrocities during the war who now saves lives—who might approach evening the ledgers after about three millennia practicing conventional medicine.)
Rabbi Goldin also wants to draw a distinction between what he sees as the Christian notion that everything is forgivable.
One might want to add three additional dimensions to this discussion.
- The first expands upon the Pharaonic and Egyptian “hardheartedness”, and that, even leaving aside Rabbi Goldin’s salient notion that there are unforgivable things, more often than not the associated attempted “repentance” fall far short at best, or later proves to have been completely insincere in its face at worst.
- The second adds a loosely analogous “hate-crime” dimension, even if an ostensibly Judeocentric one: when it comes to crimes against the Jews, and that the otherwise ostensibly well-behaved forfeit any claim to righteousness, and can be accounted with the truly wicked based solely on their expressed intransigent Judeophobia, on a personal but especially on a national level.
- The third, unfortunately, points to a trend within certain frum circles where an inappropriately expansive definition of teshuva and mechila has been adopted and insisted upon as a, if not the, default Jewish position regarding certain offenses and offenders. The distortion might owe more to pop psychology than the aforementioned Christian notions of forgiveness; it finds considerable favor in therapeutic circles where the lines between therapy and teshuva get blurred.
The first explains why the theme of “hard-heartedness” more conceptually central to the parshiyot in Sefer Shemot that precede Beshalach—especially Va’era, where one first views the shift between Pharaoh hardening his heart first without, and then with, Divine “assistance”—actually not only in central to the events at the Red Sea, but finally ties together the entire Egyptian attitude.
In essence, Pharaoh, his court and subjects cancel whatever teshuva they might have done at the time of makkas bechoros when they completely reconsider having set the slaves free (or, possibly, even having only given them a three-day furlough). The favorable attitude they had toward the Hebrews referred to during the period between choshech and makkas bechoros; their fear after makkas bechoros “we are all dead”—any self-reflection and regret is now erased: the chase to the Sea is on. In our day and age, one can identify this kind of insincere or even completely false repentance with individuals like Dr. Lara (rhymes with Phara) Kollab, the Touro graduate who showed her gross ingratitude in a series of revealed antisemitic tweets and, when caught, issued a fauxpology blaming her tirade on the “oppression of Palestinians”.
The second point explains how theoretically G-d-fearing, well-meaning people can harbor the word Judeocidal impulses even while ostensibly exhibiting righteousness: consider how the Egyptians labeled as “G-d-fearing” during the plague of barad who saved their livestock are identified as the same Egyptians comprising the garrison chasing the Jews into the sea. This should serve as a contemporary analog to public figures like Jimmy Carter and Louis Farrakhan, who are lauded for their charitable efforts at the same time they issue repeated antisemitic platitudes. A “good” antisemite may be an even worse antisemite.
The third element—the aforementioned trend within certain frum circles to inappropriately expand definitions of teshuva and mechila—describes issues different from national enemies: rather, it can be seen particularly in the insistence that miscreants like sex offenders and domestic abusers are too often given the benefit of religious doubts because “anyone can do teshuva”. As Rabbi Goldin points out, this notion is a misnomer, but it hasn’t stopped stop some from insisting upon the opposite notion bordering on an ikkar emunah.
One example might be a facebook thread on the wall of a very prominent shadchanis discussing harassment and even date rapes unexpectedly occurring in shidduch settings; some commenters insisted that even a rapist can’t be turned in for his crime if he has done teshuva.
Another example might be a frum psychologist insisting that an abuser doing teshuva for wife beating can be trusted to get married again because “anyone can do teshuva”, and that would qualify as an indicator for rehabilitative success (in fact, if an abuser wanted to truly repent, he should express the willingness to consign himself to celibacy and release his victim unreservedly from the marriage to find safety elsewhere).
Yet another example might involve a discussion about Amnon ostensibly doing teshuva for the rape of his sister Tamar by fasting and never leaving the bes medrash for the last two years of his life before Avshalom kills him as revenge. Some use this medrash as a paradigm of how one can repent even the worst crime; a closer examination of the narrative might indicate how this kind of outward “repentance” usually is somewhere between woefully incompletely and grossly insincere. One thing one might note is that the medrash details Amnon’s outward displays of piety, but it never says he apologizes or makes restitution to his sister, who becomes a recluse as a result of the assault.
In effect the real takeaway, then, is that it is more likely that expressions of regret and penitence for certain gross iniquities can be legitimately responded to with even extreme skepticism.
As a final recent example of how this works (or doesn’t), one can view the example of a prominent Rav trying to use Bernie Madoff’s expressions of regret at his sentencing as “help[ing] people understand eternal Jewish truths”. Even as the Rav was removing his piece because the intense backlash made him consider that he might have “chose[n] unsuitable examples for the concepts [he] sought to impart”, Madoff, like Pharaoh, ended any penitential pretense in a later jailhouse interview: