It is one of the classic philosophical conundrums. In this week’s sedra, before even the first plague has struck Egypt, G-d tells Moses:
“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt. He will not listen to you. Then I will lay My hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out My troops, My people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out My hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (Ex.7:3-5)
The problem is obvious. If it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, where then was his freedom? Either the Egyptian ruler had a genuine choice, or he did not. If he did, it was Pharaoh, not G-d, who was responsible for the hardness of heart. If he did not – if it was G-d acting on him, controlling his responses, determining his reactions – then how could Pharaoh be guilty and worthy of punishment? As Moses Maimonides puts it – If there were no freewill – What room what would there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could G-d punish the wicked or reward the righteous? “Shall not the judge of all the earth act justly?” (Genesis 18:25; Laws of Repentance 5:6)
Punishing Pharaoh for something he could not help doing is, simply, unjust.
The general outline of an answer – however we construe its details – is already implicit in the precise wording of the biblical narrative. After each of the first five plagues, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It is only from the sixth plague onward that his hard-heartedness is attributed to G-d:
Plague 6, Boils: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses. (Ex. 9:12)
Plague 7 Hail: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform My miraculous signs among them.” (10:1)
Plague 8 Locusts: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go. (10:20)
Plague 9 Darkness: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. (10:26)
Plague 10 Firstborn: Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country. (11:20)
Rashi understands the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the last five plagues as a form of punishment for first five, when it was Pharaoh’s own obstinacy that led him to refuse to let the people go.
Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 6:3) interprets G-d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as meaning that “repentance was withheld from him, and the liberty to turn from his wickedness was not accorded to him.”
Albo and Sforno offer the opposite interpretation. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart precisely to restore his free will. After the succession of plagues that had devastated the land, Pharaoh was under overwhelming pressure to let the people go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free choice, but rather under force majeure. G-d therefore toughened, strengthened, Pharaoh’s heart so that even after the first five plagues he was genuinely free to say yes or no.
Simplest and most profound are the words of the Talmudic sages about yetser ha-ra, the evil impulse:
Rav Assi said at first the evil impulse is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart-rope. (Sukkah 52a)
Rava said at first the evil impulse is called a “wayfarer,” then a “guest,” then finally a “master.” (Sukkah 52b)
Evil has two faces. The first – turned to the outside world – is what it does to its victim. The second – turned within – is what it does to its perpetrator. Evil traps the evildoer in its mesh. Slowly but surely he or she loses freedom and becomes not evil’s master but its slave.
Pharaoh is in fact (and this is rare in Tanakh) a tragic figure like Lady Macbeth, or like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, trapped in an obsession which may have had rational beginnings, right or wrong, but which has taken hold of him, bringing not only him but those around him to their ruin. This is signaled, simply but deftly, early in next week’s sedra when Pharaoh’s own advisers say to him, “Let the people go so that they may worship the Lord their G-d. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?” (10:7) But Pharaoh has left rationality behind. He can no longer hear them.
It is a compelling narrative, and helps us understand not only Pharaoh but Hitler, Stalin and other tyrants in modern times. It also contains a hint – and this really is fundamental to understanding what makes the Torah unique in religious literature – of why the Torah teaches its moral truths through narrative, rather than through philosophical or quasi-scientific discourse on the one hand, or myth and parable on the other.
Compare the Torah’s treatment of freewill with that of the great philosophical or scientific theories. For these other systems, freedom is almost invariably an either/or – either we are always free or we never are. Some systems assert the first. Many – those who believe in social, economic or genetic determinism, or historical inevitability – claim the second. Both are too crude to portray the inner life as it really is.
The belief that freedom is an all or nothing phenomenon – that we have it either all the time or none of the time – blinds us to the fact that there are degrees of freedom. It can be won and lost, and its loss is gradual. Unless the will is constantly exercised, it atrophies and dies. We then become objects not subjects, swept along by tides of fashion, or the caprice of desire, or the passion that becomes an obsession. Only narrative can portray the subtlety of Pharaoh’s slow descent into a self-destructive madness. That, I believe, is what makes Torah truer to the human condition than its philosophical or scientific counterparts.
Pharaoh is everyman writ large. The ruler of the ancient world’s greatest empire, he ruled everyone except himself. It was not the Hebrews but he who was the real slave for his obstinate insistence that he, not G-d, ruled history. Hence the profound insight of Ben Zoma (Avot 4:1), “Who is mighty?” Not one who can conquer his enemies but “one who can conquer himself.”
Many things influence us – our genes, our parents, our early childhood, our race, creed, culture, class, and the persuasions and pressures of our environment. But influence is not control. Causes do not compel. It was a survivor of Auschwitz, the late Viktor Frankl, who discovered in that nightmare kingdom the truth to which he subsequently devoted his life. He said – the Nazis tried to rob us of every vestige of our humanity, but there was one freedom they could not take away from us, the freedom to decide how to respond. At the heart of Judaism is faith in freedom – our faith in G-d’s freedom, and G-d’s faith in ours.
Judaism is, among other things, a sustained tutorial in freedom; in the ability to say no; to conquer instinct by conscience; to resist the madness of crowds and their idols. That needs discipline, and the ability to stand a little apart from society, even while contributing to it. To be a Jew is to know that though we are here, we are also elsewhere. We live in time, but we are addressed by the voice of One who is beyond time.
Pharaoh was born free but became his own slave. Moses was born into a nation of slaves but led them to freedom. Easily lost, hard to sustain, freedom is our most precious gift. But it must be exercised if it is to be retained. Its greatest discipline is to let G-d’s will challenge ours. That is the path to freedom and the cure for hardness of the heart.