Ancient Egyptians believed that, after death, a person’s heart was put on a balance and weighed against a feather. A heart lighter than the feather was a sign of righteousness and led to eternal reward. A heavy heart led to oblivion.
Pharaoh is described five times in the Torah as having a heavy heart. While one can expect his callousness towards slaves, Pharaoh’s heart displays a cold disregard for his own people, resulting in five plagues described as kaved (heavy).
What is it about Pharaoh’s heart that causes him to repeat the same actions despite the suffering it brings to his people? In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz describes how free will becomes constricted with habitual behaviour: “As soon as he has made his first choice, then the opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced. The more he persists in the first path of his choosing, shall we say, the evil path, the harder will it become for him to revert to the good path.”
Being in a position of power is burdensome, and the responsibility of making decisions and facing their consequences weighs heavily on rulers.
For an autocratic ruler such as Pharaoh, personal honour is of supreme importance and therefore most onerous. Kavod (honour) – from the same Hebrew root as kaved – is the driving force for Pharaoh. This is why he can be so callous towards the suffering of his own people and the consequences of his actions.
Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen the egotism, short-sightedness and callousness of Pharaoh’s heart exhibited in the behaviour of various world leaders, weighing themselves and their people down.
Whether in the halls of power or in everyday life, we would do best to remember the words of Shimon ben Zoma: “Who is mighty? The one who subdues his impulse.”