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    Parashat Shemot tells the story of Beneh Yisrael’s bondage in Egypt and Hashem’s appointing Moshe as the leader who would confront Pharaoh and bring the nation out of Egypt. Right at the outset, when Hashem appears to Moshe and commands him to go to Egypt, He informs Moshe that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart,” making the king stubborn and unyielding, such that he would refuse to let Beneh Yisrael leave Egypt.

    The Rambam, in Hilchot Teshuvah, discusses this “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart, and the question of how it squares with the concept of הריחב†תישפח†– free will.

    One of the fundamental tenets of Judaism, the Rambam writes, is that we all have the freedom to choose how to act. Only we decide whether to do the right thing or the wrong thing. No person and no force determines whether we will do mitzvot or commit sins. Yet, we see in the Torah that Hashem “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, preventing him from making the decision to release Beneh Yisrael, and he was then punished more for continuing to refuse. How could Pharaoh’s heart by “hardened” if Hashem allows all people free will?

    The Rambam gives a famous answer, saying that there are very rare, exceptional situations when Hashem punishes a sinner by denying him the ability to change his conduct. If a person commits an especially severe sin, or sins repeatedly, over and over again, then Hashem might punish him by denying him the ability to repent, to change his behavior.

    This phenomenon is, unfortunately, quite familiar to us, in the area of addictions.

    An addiction is precisely a situation of the “hardening” of one’s heart – when the person loses the ability to make the right choices. Like in the case of Pharaoh, addictions are the result of a long process. It starts very innocently – one beer on a Sunday afternoon, one bet on a football game, or one trip to a casino. The behavior repeats itself, one step at a time, until eventually it becomes exceedingly difficult to stop.

    King Shlomo alludes to this tragedy in the Book of Mishleh (27:3), when he compares two things that are very heavy: לוח†לטנו†ןבא†דבוכ†– the weight of a stone, and the weight of sand. A stone is a single object that is very heavy, whereas sand consists of many tiny grains, each of which weighs next to nothing. But when many thousands of grains of sand come together, they become as heavy as a large stone. Every drink, every token in a slot machine, is in itself innocent. But with time, they become very “heavy,” and a very, very serious problem.

    How does this happen? Why do things like drinking and gambling become so addictive?

    The Midrash says that when Moshe was on top of Mount Sinai, and he did not return when the people expected him to, the Satan – referring to the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) – showed the people an image of Moshe lying dead in a coffin. They assumed Moshe had died, and so they panicked, and fashioned a golden calf.

    The yetzer ha’ra has a way of creating false images in our minds, which can lead to very serious sins.

    When a person experiences a good feeling from drinking, or from winning money gambling, the Satan plants an image in that person’s head. The person thinks that this is what makes him feel great, that this is what puts him on top of the world, when in truth, it is leading him down a path to self-ruin.

    This is what happened to Pharaoh. He had this image in his mind of himself as the most powerful being in the world. That image led him to persist even though it made no sense and brought destruction upon himself and his empire.

    When Hashem spoke to Moshe and sent him to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, He gave Moshe a number of “signs,” miracles that he would perform to prove that Hashem had spoken to him. One miracle was that he would throw his stick on the ground, and it would turn into a snake. Moshe was then to grab hold of the snake’s tail, and it would then turn back into a stick.

    The commentators explain that this was a symbol of his job to lift Beneh Yisrael from the lowly depths to which they had sunken. In Egypt, the people hit rock bottom. They were like a snake slithering on the ground, lying in the lowest depths. Moshe’s job was to grab hold of them and help them transform into an upright “staff,” into a proud, successful nation.

    Unfortunately, there are many in our community who suffer from addiction and other negative behavior patterns, who have hit rock bottom. We must be there to help them, to grab hold of them and give them the support they need to rise from the depths and rebuild their lives and themselves.