From Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, Sfas Emes, Parshat Bo
כי אני הכבדתי את לבו ואת לב עבדיו למען שתי אתתי אלה בקרבו For I have hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart and the heart of his servants, so that I might show these, My signs, in his midst. Exodus 10:1
The midrash cites Proverbs, “A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both” (1). Israel are witnesses for the Creator, as it is written, “You are My witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God” (2). Just as we must bear witness and make it clear that the Holy One of Blessing is the Creator of the world, likewise we must bear witness that every choice and act and undertaking of man is done only according to the will of the Creator. In this way we nullify the “wrath of the fool” who says “I did this with my own hand.”
This was revealed to the Children of Israel in Egypt, as it is written, “You have been shown [these things] so that you should know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (3), and to which Rashi adds that God opened for them both the seven heavens and the seven lower levels, so that they may see that God is one.
This brings up the issue of [divine] foreknowledge and [human] freewill (4), about which both early and later sages have written. The truth is that this is precisely the service of a Jew: to make clear the knowledge of the Creator and then to nullify his own freewill, within his own soul and in the world at large. So we see that the Holy One of Blessing did miracles and wonders for us “so that Egypt should know” (5) and so took away their freewill, hardening Pharaoh’s heart against his will and having him send us out against his will.
It is also written, “by the word of two witnesses…will the matter stand” (6), that is, by the testimony of the Children of Israel is the Creator’s providence in the world truly established. Thus it is written, “You are my witnesses…and I am God” (2). And King David said, “I too will praise you with the harp, speaking Your truth, my God” (7). This is a wondrous thing — that truth depends on the work of people in this “world of lies.” Thus it is written, “Truth springs from the ground,” which creates the acronym emet, “truth” (8).
So truth is hidden in this world, as it is written, “Darkness covers the earth” (9). But in the world above, truth is revealed and made clear, as we say, “The Lord is a God of truth.” But God is truth [not only in essence] but also in His actions; this is “the power of the Maker in that which He has made,” and is the divine point within each person. This is the meaning of “Your truth, My God.” The wicked turn things upside down, and “they are called dead even while alive” (10). And so the divine point is taken away from them, and for them truth becomes a lie. But the righteous clarify truth. This is clear to everyone who serves God, and the more one serves the more clear it becomes, as it is written, “The ways of the Lord are straight; the righteous walk in them, but the wicked stumble in them” (11). Truly, all this comes about through the power of Torah, which is called “Torah of truth” (12).
1) Midrash Shemot Rabbah 10:1, citing Proverbs 27:3; the Hebrew for “hardened” and “heavy” is the same, hence the connection 2) Isaiah 43:10,12; The Sfas Emes doesn’t mention it here, but he is probably assuming that his readers are familiar with the famous and audacious comment of the Talmud (Hagigah 16b), “When you are my witnesses, then I am God; when you are not my witnesses, then it is as if I am not God.” 3) Deut. 4:35 4) That is, how can God have knowledge of the future and people still have the freedom to choose? 5) Exodus 7:5 6) Deuteronomy 19:15 7) Psalms 71:22 8) Psalms 85:12; the Sfas Emes is using roshei tevot, or “first letters,” of the phrase emet me’eretz titzmach, to create the word emet. Ground here represents human affairs on earth, as opposed to divine works in heaven. 9) Isaiah 60:2 10) Berachot 18b 11) Hosea 14:10 12) from various places in the liturgy
To my mind, Judaism thrives on paradox and the power of tension that holds between opposites. For example, God’s creation is perfect, but we are still tasked with improving it (a tension manifest in Shabbat and the six days of the workweek). We are children of the King, princes and princesses, yet we are dust and ashes (a tension brought out in the midrash on why humans were last in creation). The spiritual is higher than the physical, yet it is through living in the physical world that we manifest the spiritual (a rationale behind the mitzvot, and a reason why our holiest people are married with children, not celibates in a monastery). Hasidism seems to especially revel in these paradoxes, and if you keep learning the masters will almost inevitably reveal that they are false paradoxes, because what seems like two is really one–though your head might explode on the way to figuring that out.
I think that’s what is happening here. We have the classic (but here unspoken) problem in this parshah, one which bothers everyone from children to sages: How could God cause Pharaoh to say no, and then punish him for doing so? It’s similar to the problem the Sfas Emes mentions, that of divine foreknowledge and human freewill. The Sfas Emes starts by making a stark truth claim: every choice and act and undertaking of man is done only according to the will of the Creator. Then he turns around and tells us what appears to be the opposite: truth depends on human service. This is reflected in his two representations of the divine: the transcendent and overpowering God of Exodus and Isaiah who fills and rules creation, and the divine point within us, waiting to be made manifest, which the Sfas Emes elsewhere describes as both infinitely small and infinite.
Somehow, these opposites have to meet, so that “Your truth” becomes internalized as “My God.” In this teaching that happens in two places: in the service of God, and in Torah. These two are also really one, I think: Torah is where we and God meet, but it is only through our service (in this case Torah study) that that meeting happens — otherwise it’s a dead letter. I would also argue that anything that reveals God’s oneness in the world could be called Torah. So we have two paradigms, one extremely finite (that our job is to learn Torah, period) and one infinite (that any service of the One is Torah). Maybe like the Sfas Emes’ infinite/infinitely small divine point, both are the same, if done for the sake of heaven.