Saturday, January 24, 2015

Pharaoh's Freedom to Choose and Ours

Pharaoh sits on his throne and says: no!‎
‎“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

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