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All Torah TeachingsEssay on Parashat BO – Did Pharaoh have free will?

Essay on Parashat BO – Did Pharaoh have free will?


German 1900th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Twilight of the Idols writes ” Today we no longer have any pity for the concept of “free will”: we know only too well what it really is — the foulest of all theologians’ artifices, aimed at making mankind “responsible” in their sense, that is, dependent upon them. Here I simply supply the psychology of all “making responsible.” He also states: “We have learned differently. We have become more modest in every way. We no longer derive man from “the spirit” or “the deity,” we have placed him back among the animals

Albert Einstein said: “If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the Earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

Many neuroscientists and psychologists claim that man has no free will as well. They explain that the decision-making process is a result of biochemical reactions of the brain coupled with the influence of one’s surroundings. In their eyes, self-determination is an illusion.

These mistaken viewpoints stem from the fact that they are all based on a belief system that accepts only the physical world. In their minds, humans are sophisticated robots wired with moist matter that stimulates bio-chemical reactions. This is obviously in total clash with Torah that reveals to us that the will of a human being is the highest part of the soul called the crown – Keter that goes way beyond the realm of our physical world.

One of the cardinal principles of Jewish faith is the belief in free will. Every human being is responsible for his actions. This means that a person always has a choice to choose between good and evil. “Behold I give you today blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26)  The Vilna Gaon -Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), in his commentary on the Torah, Adaret Eliyahu, learns from the words “give you today” in the above verse that free will is a gift that Hashem bestows upon us every day. This teaches us that a person who lived a great portion of his life practicing immoral behavior can always make the right choice and return to Hashem, even on the last day of his life. “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

This concept is brought down many times in different styles in our Rabbinic literature. Here are a few of them: In the ethics of our fathers, chapter 3:15, Rabbi Akivah teaches – “that everything is known ahead of time by G-D and free will is given.” In other words, the fact that G-D knows the outcome of one’s choice does not contradict one’s freedom of choice. In the Tractate of Brachot our Rabbis teach us that everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.

The Rambam, in the laws of Repentance 5:3 teaches: “This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar of the Torah and the commandments as the verse in Deuteronomy 30:15 states: “Behold, I have set before you today life and goodness, death and evil.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy 11:26 it says, “Behold, I have set before you today the blessing and the curse,” implying that the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men, which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil. Therefore, in Deuteronomy 5:26 it states: Would that their hearts be like this, to fear Me and to keep all My commandments all the days, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! From this, we can infer that the Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Rather, everything is left for them to decide.”

This principle of faith brings with it great responsibility. One must bear the consequences of his actions. “Rejoice, O youth, in your childhood, and let your heart bring you cheer in the days of your youth, and go in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes, but know that for all these God will bring you to judgment.” (Ecclesiastes 11:9) The pillar of self-determination is the basis of reward and punishment. Without free will, it would be unethical for an individual to be responsible for his predetermined evil actions. In the same light, it would not make sense for an individual to receive a reward for his encoded righteous behavior.

With this in mind, a great question arises in the opening verse of this week’s portion:

 The Lord said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst,

Why does Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why is Hashem interfering with the free will of man?

This question is brought down in the Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3 “Because I hardened his heart…” Rabbi Yochanan says: this seems to be giving approval to those who deny the belief in free will. By G-D hardening the heart of Pharaoh, he did not allow him to repent! Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish answered: We can shut the mouths of the infidels with the verse in Proverbs: “If to the scoffers, he will ridicule; but to the humble, he evokes grace. [This verse can be explained in different ways. The Midrash here understands that if a person follows those, who ridicule others, like in this instance, where Pharaoh ridiculed the warnings of Hashem, then G-D will pay him back measure for measure by not allowing him to repent.] G-D warns a man three times and if he does not heed His warnings then he closes the door of repentance in order to punish him for his sins. After sending five warnings to pharaoh with no response, Hashem decided to punish him by closing his heart to repentance.”

The Rambam in laws of Repentance 6:3 elaborates on this Midrashic teaching.

A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing Hashem to hold back the possibility of repentance from the transgressor. He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed. This is what Hashem revealed to Isaiah [6:10]: “Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy. Smear over their eyes, lest they see with their eyes… understand with their hearts, repent and be healed.” Similarly, we find in Chronicles 36:16: “ They mocked the messengers of God, scorned His words, scoffed at His prophets until the anger of God mounted up against His people until there was no remedy.” We learn from these verses that after people willingly sinned numerous times the remedy of repentance was denied from them. For this reason, it says in Exodus 14:4: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Since, he began to sin on his own initiative and caused hardships to the Israelites who dwelled in his land as it says in  Exodus 1:10: “Come, let us deal wisely with them,” Hashem decided to prevent him from repenting so that he would suffer retribution. Therefore, The Holy One, blessed be He, hardened his heart. Why did God send Moses to Pharaoh, telling him: “Send forth the people, repent”? The Holy One, blessed be He, had already told that he would not release the people, as Exodus 9:30 states: “I realize that you and your subjects still do not fear God.” The reason is brought down in Exodus 9:16 “For this alone, I have preserved you… so that My name will be spoken about throughout the earth,”to make known to all the inhabitants of the worldthat when the Holy One, blessed be He, withholds repentance from a sinner, he cannot repent, but he will die in the wickedness that he initially committed willfully. Similarly, Sichon was held liable for repentance to be withheld from him, because of the sins he committed, as Deuteronomy 2:30 states: “God, your Lord, hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart.” Also, the Canaanites held back from repenting, because of their abominable acts, so that they would wage war against Israel as in Yehoshuah11:20: “This was inspired by God, to harden their hearts so that they should come against Israel in battle in order to utterly destroy them.” Similarly, the Israelites during the era of Elijah committed many sins. Repentance was held back from those who committed these offenses, as Kings I 18:37 says: “You have turned their heart backwards,”held repentance back from them. In summary, the Almighty did not decree that Pharaoh should harm the Israelites that Sichon should sin in his land, that the Canaanites should perform detestable acts, or that the Israelites should worship idols. They all sinned on their own initiative and they were punished by having repentance held back from them.

Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444) in his classic work the book of principles “sefer Ha’ikarim in essay four chapter 25 writes … G-D hardens the heart of the evil and stiffens the neck of the wicked preventing them from the path of repentance. When a wicked person suffers a serious blow, he acts as though he is righteous and repents from fear of the punishment placed upon him. As Pharaoh says in Exodus 9:27: “So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous One, and I and my people are the guilty ones.” What pharaoh says here is likened to someone who is coerced and not free to choose, G-D, therefore, hardened his heart allowing him to choose other possible explanations for the causes of the plague that are not based on Divine providence. He did this in order to remove the fear of Divine punishment from his heart. This in turn balanced things out leaving pharaoh with the ability of free decision-making. Only in this manner can repentance stem from true sincerity. This is the meaning of closing the door of repentance before the wicked, not that Hashem will prevent a person from making the right choice. Do I desire the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Rather in the repenting of his ways that he may live? Ezekiel 18:23 Hashem leaves him with the option of free will without outer influences.

Italian scholar, Rabbi Ovadyah Sforono, (1468-1550) on his commentary on Exodus 7:3 says in a similar vein: There is no doubt that if it wasn’t for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart he would have let the people of Israel free. Not because of repentance remorse, and submission to G-D for rebelling … only because he could no longer tolerate the catastrophe of the plagues. As pharaoh servants said to him, “How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” Exodus 10:7 Therefore G-D said I will harden pharaoh’s heart so that he will be able to tolerate the plagues and will not feel compelled to let Israel go from fear of catastrophe. Instead, let him pay attention to the signs I have placed within him and maybe he will choose to recognize my greatness and goodness and will truly repent.”

Unlike the Rambam both Rabbi Yosef Albo and Rabbi Ovadyah Sforno hold that G-D never takes away free will even from the most wicked perpetrators of evil. Divine intervention maintains the balance necessary for one to make a sincere decision.

History has proven that evil never prevails. Great nations founded on the principle of evil have disappeared from the world arena. Those who have come against Israel have never succeeded to persevere. Israel again is faced with enemies that seem to have lost their free will. Since the formation of the state of Israel the Arab world has tried numerous times to destroy our homeland. Despite their constant failures in conquering our land, they keep trying repeatedly to defeat us. Has G-D taken away their free will in order to punish them more severely or will they truly repent out of remorse and submission to G-D? Time will tell!

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith


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