Moishe, a man of indeterminate age in doctor’s garb, stands before the massive statues of a pharaoh’s mortuary temple on the west bank at Luxor. As Amelia Edwards noted at Abu Simbel (“A Thousand Miles Up the Nile”), there is an instant at dawn as light flushes the temple that transforms the great stone colossi. “Those awful brethren pass from death to life….”
Moishe: Good morning.
Moishe: How’re you doing?
Pharaoh: You’re the doctor, Maimonides.
Maimonides: You look terrific. Haven’t aged a day.
Pharaoh: You remind me of petitioners at the throne. What do you want?
Maimonides: Just a little answer to a little question.
Pharaoh nods suspiciously.
Maimonides: How come it took 10 plagues for you to realize you were whipped?
Pharaoh: My heart was hardened. Or strengthened if you prefer. A quibble.
Maimonides: I know that… but how was it hardened?
Pharaoh: Ah, yes, the week of the portion Vaera. Always the same question: If God hardened your heart — as it is written, Exodus 7:3 — did you really have free will in the matter? Yes?
Maimonides: Er, yes.
Pharaoh: But you’ve already answered the question. As it is written in the Book of Repentance, Hilchot Teshuva 6:1, I was such a rotten fellow on my own that finally repentance was denied me so that I couldn’t weasel out of being punished. Did I get that right?
Maimonides: Um, yes.
Pharaoh: Having second thoughts, eh? Certainly your old pal Abarbanel did.
Maimonides: Yes. He wasn’t entirely convinced by my argument. But Rashi and Nachmanides support positions similar to mine. They aren’t exactly bupkis.
Pharaoh: So then you are perfectly satisfied by your position?
Maimonides: Well… no.
Pharaoh: No, I thought not.
Maimonides: So how was your heart hardened?
Pharaoh: The first five times? The bloody Nile, frogs, lice, flies and diseased livestock? That was me. Not without good reasons, but I hardened my own heart.
Maimonides: Like what good reasons?
Pharaoh: Socioeconomic reasons, for one. I mean these people were slaves. Our entire economy depended on them. And some futz comes up and tells me — me, a god — to just let them go? Besides, who knew where the plagues came from? This two-bit magician and his brother —
Maimonides: Moshe Rabbeinu a two-bit magician?
Pharaoh: Sticks into snakes? Come on, even my magicians did that.
Maimonides: But his snakes ate your snakes.
Pharaoh: Oooo… scary. Know what I mean? So anyway, two slaves assure me the signs and wonders are from their god. But if he’s so powerful, why all the futzing around? He could just whisk them away to the land of milk and honey.
Maimonides: Ah, but then they would simply be escaped slaves, not free men.
Pharaoh: Yours is a very legalistic god.
Maimonides: You noticed.
Pharaoh: But even after I hardened my heart the first time, did the Nile turn back to blood? No. There was no quid pro quo. The frog thing didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Nile. And so on.
Maimonides: All right. But what about the other plagues?
Pharaoh: That’s a little more difficult to say. You know when you’ve gotten into certain habits of mind, it’s hard to change the pattern. Old dogs and new tricks and all that.
Maimonides: So you hardened your own heart.
Pharaoh: Well, I think so, of course. But your problem isn’t what I think, it’s what He said. And he said He hardened my heart.
Maimonides: But you don’t even believe in Him.
Pharaoh: Do I have to? Is His covenant only for one people or for the world? It seems to me His covenant requires the possibility of three things: good deeds, wicked deeds and repentance. For these to have any meaning, free will is a prerequisite, is it not?
Maimonides: It seems to be.
Pharaoh: So does He make his covenant only with Jews and with the gentiles He can behave monstrously?
Maimonides: He’s not always that pleasant with His chosen ones, either.
Pharaoh: Answer the question.
Maimonides smiles. Pharaoh isn’t sure he likes that.
Maimonides: I’ve got it. Your wickedness was in your refusal to allow free will for the Israelites, the very free will necessary for humanity’s communion with God.
Pharaoh: So the punishment was not only deserved but poetically symmetrical as well?
Pharaoh: Fine. Which brings us right back to where we started. You can’t punish me by taking away my free will — however well deserved — and still hold me responsible now can you?
Maimonides: You’re right. I can’t.
As Maimonides turns away, the first pure rays of the sun flood the plain, revealing the vast effigies as mute stone.
Maimonides: But God can.
Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer. He lives in Hollywood, Calif., with his wife and children.
This story "Heart-to-Heart Talk" was written by Jeffrey Fiskin.