One of the most distinctive aspects of the Ten Plagues was the persistent refusal of Pharaoh to recognize the error of his ways and accept that the God of the Jews was indeed all-powerful. Miracle after miracle failed to persuade him of the veracity of Moses' claims of being God's messenger and not merely an expert sorcerer.
During the first five plagues he refused to release the Jews while in full control of his free will. In the second five plagues he would have sent the Jews out of Egypt had God not hardened his heart. The Seforno explains, however, that this does not mean that the plagues caused Pharaoh to repent from a recognition of God's greatness. Rather his inability to bear any more plagues would have been the cause of permitting the Jews to leave. Accordingly, God's hardening of his heart gave him to strength to overcome his natural fear and make a 'reasoned' free will decision to continue to refuse Moses' requests.(1)
Pharaoh's seemingly superhuman stubbornness aroused great wonderment in Rav Aaron Bakst, Rosh Yeshiva of Lomza. He used to give a class in his home every Friday night after the meal. On one occasion his students entered his house and were surprised to see him walking back and forth in his room, speaking to himself, "What was Pharaoh thinking when he saw these great miracles in front of his very eyes?!" Suddenly, he stopped walking, turned to the students and explained, "He did not think at all! Only through lack of thinking can a person come to ignore such great miracles without allowing them to influence him in the slightest!" (2)
This explanation of Pharaoh's illogical behavior sheds great light on why people fail to change when they experience great events. They may even recognize that miracles have occurred but they do not think about their consequences.
An example of this was people's reaction to the open miracles of the Gulf War in which 39 scud missiles succeeded in killing just one person.(3) Many people acknowledged that the nation had clearly witnessed then hand of God. Yet, they did not necessarily act upon their newfound realization of Divine Providence. One may ask, what were such people thinking? They had clearly seen God's hand in protecting the Jewish people and yet they didn't change. The answer is found in Rav Bakst's explanation: they did not think. Had one sincerely reflected on the remarkable events, he would have surely changed in some way.
Another striking illustration of this phenomenon is told over by Rav Dovid Kaplan. Rav Yehcehzkel Levensteil was traveling in a taxi with a non-religious driver. The driver turned to Rav Yechezkel and told him the following remarkable story: Several years earlier, he had been traveling in the jungles of Africa with some friends. Suddenly, a snake attacked one of them, wrapping its large body around him, causing him to suffocate. After concerted efforts to save him, they realized that there was no hope, so they told him to say the Shema before he left the world. He quickly said it and immediately the snake uncurled itself and left. This man was profoundly affected by this event, and gradually returned to Judaism and he was now a fully observant Jew. After hearing how this even so drastically changed the friend's life, Rav Levenstein turned to the driver and asked him why he had not changed as a result of this miracle. The driver explained, "Oh no, it didn't happen to me, it happened to him." (4)
The driver saw a potentially life-changing event but did not change. Why? Because he did not think, he did not let the obvious consequences of this miracle cause him to reflect on his life direction. It is also instructive to note that his friend, the subject of the miracle, did change - sometimes an event can be so powerful that a person cannot help but think about it and allow it to influence his life. However, often, we ourselves are not the subject of the miracle and therefore it requires far more conscious effort to force ourselves to 'think' about the ramifications of events that we see and hear about.
The first stage of changing as a result of the world around us is to learn the lesson of Pharaoh and to 'think' - to let events that happen in the world at large, and that occur in our own private lives, cause us to reflect on our lives, and make necessary changes. May we all merit to think about that which happens around us.
1. Seforno, Va'eira, 9:12, 35; Bo, 10:1.
2. Quoted in 'Mishluchan Gavoa,' Parshas Bo, p.70.
3. In the same war, a single scud missile in Saudi Arabia succeeded in killing dozens of people.
4. Kaplan, Impact, p.85.