This week's parsha recounts in great detail the first seven of the ten makkos. It is incredible to think about Paroh's reaction to the plagues. He suffers through a week of blood replacing all water, another week of frogs abounding in every possible corner, and a third week of being afflicted with terrible lice. Nevertheless, when these punishments pass he hardens his heart. In response to his stubbornness, he endures a week of ferocious animals wreaking havoc upon his kingdom and a week of animals dying and their rotting carcasses filling his country. These weeks also pass finally, and once again Paroh hardens his heart. He is suffering terribly and he simply ignores the pain! How can we understand such madness?
Firstly, says Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash Shemos 9, 7) we must understand what a pivotal role one's "heart" plays in avodas Hashem. The entire Shema revolves around this exact idea. In the first paragraph we say, "And you shall love Hashem with all your heart. . . And you shall place these words upon your heart." In the second paragraph we continue, "And to serve Him with all your hearts." We must ensure that our Torah and avodah penetrate our hearts. Thereafter, we are warned that if we eat a little too much, "Be careful lest your hearts be swayed and you deviate and serve other gods." Such behavior brings exile in its wake. The only way out of exile is, "And you shall place these words upon your hearts" - we must rebuild our hearts which deviated from the service of Hashem. In the last paragraph we are warned once again, "Do not stray after your hearts and after eyes, after which you stray." Now that we have experienced the destruction wrought by our wayward hearts (described in the second paragraph) we must make an added effort not to stray after our hearts.
The key to success in avodas Hashem is the ability to penetrate the heart with one's Torah and avodah. It's not enough to learn and perform the mitzvos; Hashem's words must be firmly implanted upon our hearts.
This is where Paroh failed. Indeed, he suffered through each and every plague and he was as miserable as everyone else. Yet, he put up a tough front and he simply did not allow the pain and misery to penetrate his heart! Thus, as soon as the danger passed, he was back to his old ways. He was cognizant of what was happening, but the knowledge remained right there in his head and did not travel to his heart. In response, Hashem tells Moshe, "This time I am sending all my plagues to his heart" (Shemos 9, 14). The only way to change Paroh is to ensure that the suffering penetrates his heart. It's incredible to perceive the awesome ability of a human being to literally block out the most world shattering events from affecting himself. What's even more unbelievable is that we ourselves do this all the time! Often we know what the right thing to do is, and we simply ignore this knowledge and act on impulse. We might even be receiving "messages" from Hashem, and we "do whatever we can" to prevent the message from penetrating our hearts. Sometimes we have to take a lesson from Paroh. Stop closing your eyes to what you know to be true and begin serving Hashem with heartfelt avodah!