This week’s Torah portion of Vaera, we begin to go through most of the ten plagues. The first plague was one of blood. Upon warning Pharaoh about the first plague, the Medrish Rabba in this parsha (9:8) relates that Hashem told Moshe, “‘Go to Pharaoh in the morning, he will be coming out of the water.’ Pharaoh only went down to the water in the mornings because this wicked person declared and lauded himself as a deity who didn’t need to use the facilities; therefore he only went in the morning, when the need was too overwhelming. And the staff that turned into a snake [Hashem told Moshe] you should take with you in order to instill fear of you inside him.” The Maharz”u quoting a different version of the medrish found in the Yalkut Shimone says that Hashem told Moshe that because he declared himself a god, he should inform him that he is only human; so Moshe grabbed him. Pharaoh said, let me go so I can do what I need to do. Moshe said back, is there a god that needs to use the facilities? That is why Hashem told Moshe to get up early in the morning.
Why did Hashem tell Moshe to take his staff in order to instill fear into Pharaoh? The Maharz”u says to look at the previous medrish, which said that what it means that Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs, Rebbe Eliezer says, is that a miracle within a miracle happened. The staff turned back into the original staff [after it had turned into a snake] and then swallowed all the other ones. When Pharaoh saw this, he was bewildered and said ‘What if he tells the staff to swallow Pharaoh and his throne, it will now swallow him…’ We see from here that the staff was brought that morning in order to haunt Pharaoh and remind him of the threat that he could be swallowed up by the staff.
The Eshed Hanachalim has an interesting twist on why the staff was brought to instill fear into Pharaoh. “Maybe he will have a change of heart for the better. Because Hashem doesn’t want to take revenge like human beings. Rather He is warning him and instilling fear into him perhaps he will repent.” The Eshel Hanachalim goes on to prove that that is what Hashem was trying to do. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
But why did Pharaoh have to be haunted by this staff in order for him to possibly repent? Wasn’t it obvious that he was wrong? He was caught in an act of being mortal by his arch nemesis; there was nothing he could deny, intellectually! Besides the fact that emotionally, even in the back of his mind, he had the memory of the staff fresh in his mind! So why the need to bring it just to haunt him and make a greater impression upon him to change?
We see from here how hard it is for a person to change his character and way of life. Even though Pharaoh couldn’t deny to Moshe that he was only human, as well as the fact that the threat of being swallowed up by the staff was fresh on his mind, still, in all, it wasn’t enough for him to admit his flaws and repent. The Eshed Hanachalim also says that even after he was haunted by the staff, then perhaps, maybe he would repent. Instilling fresh fear while being caught in the act of not acting godly still wasn’t able to ensure his repentance; and in fact he didn’t. Things got much worse for his entire country with the ten plagues and the eventual annihilation of his entire army when they drowned in the Red Sea.
However, the Yalkut Shimone in Yona (550), quoting a Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (chapter 43), relates that Pharaoh was the only Egyptian who survived the drowning at the Red Sea because he was rewarded foe exclaiming before he would have drowned, “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Hashem” (Shemos 15:11)! At that point, broken and humiliated, he in fact repented and ran off to Nineveh. Hashem granted him the chance to live for hundreds of years longer, and he was the king of Nineveh in the book of Yonah the prophet. When Yonah finally came to Nineveh and told the people in the great metropolis to repent from their evil ways, the king, who was Pharaoh, told everyone to not take Yonah’s word lightly because his G-D means business and is being very serious. Millions of people went through a penitent process that lasted only 40 days, but we clearly see that Pharaoh finally got the point and acknowledged who is Boss. (Click here for Hebrew text)
Ultimately it can only take oneself to choose to change his or her own life. No one can force them to do it. There can be pressure, a lot of pressure, but it’s still only up to one’s own self to change.