Growing up, I have a vague recollection of being repeatedly presented with the question why punish the Egyptians if it was Gd who hardened Pharoh’s heart? If I ever heard an answer, did not remember it (there are plenty of commentaries explaining it, but somehow I either had not read them or it hadn’t registered). Instead, I was left with this vague feeling that It was all very unfair.
But what would have been the alternative? Is it really realistic to expect a ruler to let a huge percentage of its enslaved workforce leave? And, after all, our first request was merely to go into the desert to worship. What if Pharoh had said yes? Would we have gone, returned, and continued in our slavery, eventually either assimilating into the Egyptian population or just continuing as an underclass?
And what if we had decided to leave? Even after witnessing the plagues and the parting of the sea, even while being shielded from the Egyptians chasing us by a pillar of smoke, even with the constant reminder of G-d’s presence with the pillar of smoke guiding us during the day, and the pillar of fire at night, even with food literally falling from the sky to feed us, we were constantly frightened and tempted to return to the certainty of Egypt, and the method of worship of those who had been around us. How would we ever have found the courage to leave had we had any choice?
Then I noticed a few things:
BEFORE the plagues began, Moshe and Aaron were sent to be before Pharoh first to show him that they represented G-d. (Exodus 7:10). At first nothing was asked of him, but Pharoh, on his own, refused to accept that which they said, even after Aaron’s snake swallowed those of Pharoh’s magicians. (Exodus 7:11-7:12). This was Pharoh’s doing, G-d only predicted it. (Exodus 7:13).
Pharoh continues to stiffen his OWN heart for several plagues. G-d only stiffens his heart for the last 5. Why? The Torah expressly tells us, it was in order to enable the Signs to be made in Pharoh’s presence. (Exodus 10:2).
But why would that matter? Why did G-d care if Pharoh knew He was G-d or not?
Then I realized:
According to tradition, 80% of descendants of Israel (I choose this phrasing for a reason) didn’t leave Egypt. By choice. (An explanation is found at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/parshat-bshalach-why-did-so-many-israelites-refuse-to-leave-egypt/ ). Furthermore, a “mixed multitude” joined the descendants of Israel that HAD left. (Exodus 12:38). Finally, G-d says he wanted Pharoh to pursue us so that “the Egyptians know He is G-d.” (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18.) And everyone at Mount Sinai, whether literally descendants of Israel or the “mixed multitude” who joined them, entered into the covenant, as here we are referred to not as the “children of Israel” but as “the nation.” (Exodus 24:7).
Suddenly it clicked: the covenant was not entered into with the descendants of Israel/Jacob. It was entered into with those who LEFT! The reason Pharoh had to witness the “otot” (signs) was to give him, and the other Egyptians a CHANCE to come with us! Those born Jews are the physical descendants of those who left, while those who become Jews are their spiritual descendants.
Anyway… it makes sense to me.