“I do not know the LORD, and I will not will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).This a predictable statement that marks the beginning of the battle between Pharaoh and God, in which God strives not only to liberate the Israelites from bondage but also to produce a magnificent – albeit destructive – show of power intended to prove God’s divinity to both the Egyptians and the Israelites.
Ten times during the story of the Exodus, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. Another ten times, it tells us that God did the hardening. Between one hardening of the heart and another, Pharaoh relents and agrees to allow the Israelites to leave, but soon has second thoughts and hardens his heart again.
Pharaoh’s independent behavior is comprehensible. He takes a strong position of principle, then responds to conditions in the field, over and over again. At the end of the process, God takes advantage of a moment of Pharaoh’s weakness to rescue the slaves under cover of dark, before Pharaoh has a chance to change his mind again.
What about the times when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Must proving divine power come at the cost of Egyptian suffering and depriving Pharaoh of his freedom of choice?
One school of interpretation, represented by Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 15-16th century) explains that hardening Pharaoh’s heart is actually intended to provide an opportunity for making a good decision:
“If his heart had not been hardened, Pharaoh surely would have released the Israelites but [only] because he could no longer tolerate the plagues.”Because God wanted Pharaoh to release the Israelites because of his awe of Heaven rather than his fear of punishment, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so he could withstand the suffering caused by the plagues. National resilience becomes a tool for surviving hard times, to allow a chance for making the right decision for the right reasons. Very interesting but not an answer to the question about freedom of choice.
Maimonides considered free choice “a great principle and a foundation of the Torah... The choice is yours, and anything a person wishes to do, for good or for evil, he can do” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:3) but explained, “it is possible for a person to commit a sin so serious, or to commit so many sins, that the judgment rendered before the True Judge is that his retribution for these sins, which he committed freely and of his own accord, is that he is prevented from repenting and is no longer able to abandon his evil ways - so that he dies and perishes on account of those sins he committed... This is why the Blessed Holy One hardened Pharaoh's heart.” (Laws of Repentance, 6:3).
However, Maimonides writes very clearly in another place he does not believe that God actively intervenes in the world. Therefore, Maimonides – like many other commentators – can be understood as claiming not so much that Pharaoh was deprived of his freedom but rather he, himself, lost it. Pharaoh is tied to his refusal because his own bad habits have taken control. Likely this was not the first time he behaved in this way, making it possible for God to foresee the entire process, and tell Moses how it would progress even before the first plague.
We are not Pharaoh but each of us has our bad habits.
Does this story mean that we can never get beyond them? There are indeed neurologists who claim that the power of habit is so strong that many of our decisions are made only post facto, after we have already begun to act, and we do not truly have freedom of choice. However, other scientists dispute this neurological determinism and insist that we are indeed equipped with the most important types of free will and are capable of vetoing our urges. This is the essence of our freedom of choice.
We aren't Pharaoh. We remain endowed with freedom of choice but using it requires a conscious effort. It is hard to overcome the power of habit.
Pharaoh sits on his throne and says: no.
We awaken in the morning and recite a blessing that we have been made free.
This daily blessing is not only an act of thanksgiving but also a means of strengthening ourselves.
Freedom of choice cannot be taken granted; nor is it always accessible. Rather “it is a trait that a person must work hard to achieve” (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe).
Or as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught:
“The assumption that man is free… cannot rely on the idea of belief by itself; it also depends on knowledge... Free will should implant in man a sense of responsibility... without even a moment’s inattentiveness! [It] must always remain part of the self—the knowledge that man can create worlds and destroy them” (On Repentance). Utilizing freedom of choice requires effort and alertness, stopping for a moment and asking, “Do I really want to do this?” The Torah commands us to choose life and good. It does not promise that this will be easy. Not becoming enslaved to our urges is indeed a challenge. The morning blessing – if said attentively – can serve as a statement of intention for the entire day:
I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to choose the good and life.Pharaoh succumbs to the power of habit and his refusal destroyed his world.
May we know how to use our freedom of choice to build and be built.
Hod Vehadar 5775