Minutes of Torah

In this week’s parashat Bo, the portion opens by describing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, a theme which runs throughout the Exodus narrative and represents one of the Torah’s most difficult moral and theological challenges, where God declares that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart and thereby causes him to refuse to let the Israelites go. But, if God deprives Pharaoh of free will by “hardening” his heart while visiting the plagues upon Egypt, how is Pharaoh culpable for refusing to accede to the demand to release the Israelites?

A close examination at the narrative reveals that for the first five plagues the Torah describes Pharaoh as hardening his own heart (or, in a passive sense, as his heart becoming hardened). Only over the final five plagues does the text describe God as actively stiffening Pharaoh’s heart. The story describes a natural process of heart-hardening in which, paradoxically, the more Pharaoh asserts his own will, the more he loses volition and control – and ultimately is compelled against his will to submit to another power – God!

Some traditional commentators attempt to resolve the theological problem by essentially arguing that due to Pharaoh’s history of evil behavior, he essentially had forfeited his right and capacity to repent. In short, as Pharaoh’s heart hardens, his freedom of choice diminishes. His actions appear increasingly controlled by his evil inclination, his yetzer hara.

Indeed, his loss of control is so great that he is at odds with the reality that everyone else is experiencing. For example, after Moses and Aaron announce the coming of the eighth plague Pharaoh’s advisors desperately appeal to him to recognize and yield to the reality that they have been defeated and that Pharaoh needs to let the Israelites go. But of course, Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” and he can no longer see the reality that everyone else sees – the hardening of his heart has blinded his eyes.

Pharaoh is at a point that we are all too well aware of:  he is at the “choice” point, the point which represents the moment when, if we are clear-sighted enough to envision and consider the full range of options available to us, we can freely choose the wise path that represents our “better self.”

But as the 20th century Mussar master Rav Eliyahu Dessler points out, this point of “choice” can only arise if we are free enough from the power of habit or compulsion to exercise freedom of choice. Rather, he points out that the majority of a person’s actions are undertaken without any free will being exercised because we tend to perform the overwhelming share of our actions without thinking.  We do them because we were brought up that way, and it does not occur to us to do otherwise. Indeed, many bad decisions are made simply because we do not realize that they are bad.

In such cases no free will has been exercised.

We have freedom to choose our path only when we can see clearly what is happening within and around us, unconstrained by denial or rationalization. But if we cannot see clearly, any “decisions” we might consider freely chosen may reflect habits of mind and heart shaped by unconscious forces and engrained over time. Hence, the real moment of “free will” in these instances can only occur when we “wake up” to the reality of our actions that until now we have been blind to.

We need to be careful about the “hardening” of our own hearts.  When we operate throughout life on ‘auto-pilot’ we are generally not exercising our own free will. While being able to operate on ‘auto-pilot’ is necessary to get us through our day efficiently – imagine having to have a discussion with yourself as to whether the left shoe gets tied first or the right shoe — we need to make sure that our habitual ‘decisions’ truly reflect the exercise of our current “free will” and are not simply something that we have carried over from previous episodes of life but which we have not reviewed in a very long, long time.

The blessing of “free will” is not a gift that should be taken for granted. Rather, it is the foundation of who we are; and we ought not to cheapen it by not thinking it through whenever we get a chance to do so.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rav Julius Rabinowitz


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