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Parshat Va’eira: Pharaoh’s Free Will

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Shemot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text -- ShmotPharaoh’s Free Will


At the core of Jewish theology lies a taut balance between three components which define the very parameters of our lives. While the details of this balance have been debated across the centuries, the majority approach can be summarized in the following three points.
1. Free will: The belief that man freely chooses his way and defines the quality of his life is central to Jewish thought. Without free will man cannot be an independent being, responsible before God for his actions.
2. Prescience: Almost all classical Jewish scholars maintain that God is aware of all future events, including man’s personal choices. God’s prior knowledge, however, does not affect man’s freely made choices.
3. Predestination: Judaism recognizes that elements of our lives are clearly predetermined. On an individual level, predetermined elements include our genetic makeup, when and where we are born, and to whom we are born. On a national level, our belief in Mashiach and a messianic era reflects our conviction that our history is moving towards a definite, predefined goal. In spite of these predetermined elements of life, however, the quality and details of both our personal and national journeys remain in our hands.

As long as the above components stay firmly within their boundaries, the philosophical balance between them remains understandable. Turmoil results, however, when the balance is upset.

Even before Moshe returns to Egypt, God predicts, “And I will harden [Pharaoh’s] heart and he will not let the people go.” On a number of occasions, as the Exodus narrative continues, the Torah states that God makes good on His promise and actually “hardens the heart” of the Egyptian king.


The Torah seems to indicate that God robs Pharaoh of his rightful free will. By “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” doesn’t God unfairly predetermine both Pharaoh’s choices and his (and his nation’s) resulting fate? Jewish tradition views tshuva (repentance or return) as an inalienable right granted by God to every individual. How can God deny that right to Pharaoh?

The textual record is inconsistent. After each of the first five plagues the Torah states that Pharaoh “hardens” his own heart, apparently of his own free will. Only in conjunction with the sixth through tenth plagues does God fulfill His prediction by “hardening the heart” of the Egyptian monarch.

What causes the change in Pharaoh’s mindset and in God’s response?


The rabbis were well aware that the issues surrounding the apparent suspension of Pharaoh’s free will strike to the very core of Jewish belief.

Thus, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is quoted in the Midrash Rabba as stating, “[The textual testimony concerning Pharaoh] provides an opening for heretics to say: ‘[Pharaoh] was not allowed to repent.’ ”

And, centuries later, both the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra wonder aloud, “If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then what was [Pharaoh’s] sin?”

Rising to the obvious challenges raised by these concerns, the authorities suggest a wide array of approaches.

At one end of the spectrum lie those, such as Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), who find the problems so troubling that they feel compelled to claim that the questions are not questions at all:

Know that all acts can be ascribed to God, for all are caused by Him – some through absolute decree and others through man’s free choice which has been granted by Him…. It can therefore be said that [God], as the author of all acts, hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Pharaoh’s choices are made totally of his own free will. These very choices, however, like all events in the world, ultimately trace back to God Who is the One Who grants Pharaoh and all mankind free will in the first place. The assertion that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” is simply the text’s way of indicating a fundamental connection between Pharaoh’s independent choices and the divine source of his free will.

This circular reasoning, however, raises an obvious question: How, then, can the Torah ever speak of actions independently performed by individuals? Why doesn’t the text attribute every decision made by each of its characters, as it does in the case of Pharaoh, to its ultimate source, God?

Luzzatto addresses this objection by maintaining that only actions that defy logic, such as Pharaoh’s obstinacy in the face of the plagues, are actually ascribed in the text to God.

Other scholars, unwilling to dismiss the overwhelming textual evidence that God actually “hardens Pharaoh’s heart,” attempt mightily to reconcile that fact with Judaism’s fundamental view on free will and repentance.

Two intriguing alternatives, for example, are offered by the Abravanel.

1. Different sins warrant different paths towards absolution.
Sincere contrition, prayer and remorse can effect full atonement for sins committed against God. Crimes against one’s fellow man, however, will not be forgiven as long as the ledgers remain open in the human sphere.

Atonement cannot, for example, be attained for the crime of thievery until the theft is returned or replaced and appropriate fines are paid. An individual guilty of murder must be punished in an earthly court before he can be cleared in the heavenly realm. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are guilty of horrendous crimes against the Israelites – crimes which, by definition, give rise to requisite physical punishment. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God ironically clears the way for the atonement of Pharaoh and his people. The punishment of the plagues is the first, necessary step along the Egyptians’ path of repentance.

2. The “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” was directly caused by the methodology of the plagues.

Had God afflicted the Egyptians with one unending plague, Pharaoh would have eventually relented. In order to demonstrate His own power to the world, however, God specifically visits a series of plagues upon Egypt. As each calamity ends, the Egyptian king rationalizes that the event had occurred of natural causes. Clearly, he reasons, had the plague been divinely ordained, it would not have been lifted until the Israelites were freed.

The “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” is not an independent phenomenon but an inevitable outgrowth of the manner in which God orchestrates the plagues.

A number of commentaries, including the Sforno, insist that God’s actions vis-à-vis Pharaoh do not impede but actually enhance the king’s free will. Had God not “hardened the king’s heart,” they claim, Pharaoh would have been “forced” to choose a path for all the wrong reasons:

Had it not been for the “hardening of his heart,” Pharaoh would have certainly released the Israelites; not, however, because of a sincere desire to repent and submit to divine will, but because he could no longer bear the suffering caused by the plagues…. God, therefore, “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and fortified his ability to endure the plagues, so that the king would not release the Israelites simply because of fear of the impending calamities.

According to these commentaries, God certainly seeks the repentance of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but only if that repentance is sincere. God launches the plagues, therefore, hoping that the Egyptians will be moved by His power and His merciful insistence upon freedom for all. True repentance, however, cannot take place under duress. God, therefore, hardens Pharaoh against the physical and mental effects of the calamities. By doing so, He affords the king and his subjects the opportunity to repent of their own free will, not because of the pain of the plagues, but because of their message.

The most revolutionary approach to the issues before us, however, actually emerges from an early source. In contrast to the positions cited above, the Midrash cites an opinion which accepts the suspension of Pharaoh’s free will and right to repentance. The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish  (Reish Lakish) maintains that if an individual fails to return to God after repeated warnings, God then closes that individual’s heart to repentance in order to “exact punishment for his sin.”

God, continues Reish Lakish, gives Pharaoh five chances to repent: the first five plagues. On each of these occasions, however, the Egyptian monarch hardens his own heart, refusing to bend to God’s will. At that point God intervenes, suspends Pharaoh’s free will and closes the door to his spiritual return.

This opinion acquires greater poignancy when we recognize that its author, Reish Lakish, was himself no stranger to the path of repentance. Living in the wilderness where he made his livelihood as a bandit, Reish Lakish was swayed to turn his life around through a chance encounter with the man destined to become his scholarly colleague and brother-inlaw, Rabbi Yochanan.

Perhaps Reish Lakish felt himself nearing the point of no return before fate played a hand and pulled him back from the brink.

Numerous commentaries are unwilling to accept the Midrash at face value, refusing to believe that God would deny even Pharaoh the right to repentance. The Rambam, however, clearly codifies Reish Lakish’s position in his laws of repentance:

It is possible that a man may commit a sin so grave, or so many sins…that repentance is denied to him and he is not given the opportunity to turn away from his evil…

Therefore the Torah states “and I [God] will harden the heart of Pharaoh.” Because Pharaoh initially sinned of his own volition, divine judgment was rendered that he be denied the possibility of repentance so that he would pay for his crimes.

The Rambam’s assertion brings our discussion full circle. In contrast to the attempts to explain away the apparent suspension of Pharaoh’s free will, Maimonides himself is willing to accept what at first seemed unthinkable. The ability to repent, itself a gift from God, is not an inalienable right under all circumstances. This gift will be denied to the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, to ensure that they receive the justice they deserve.

Points to Ponder

Even our most basic assumptions must sometimes be reexamined.

This study opened with the contention that the whole fabric of Jewish tradition begins to unravel if free will and repentance are denied to any individual. That assumption, in the main, certainly remains correct. There are, however, according to some authorities, exceptions to the rule. Some crimes are so unforgivable that God will suspend the perpetrator’s basic rights in order to ensure that justice prevails.

How, however, does this assertion fare in the moral realm? If God denies even the most evil their rights, can these individuals ever be held culpable for their crimes? We can, perhaps, better address this question by moving the issue into more familiar territory.

If, God forbid, Adolf Hitler stood before us today and proclaimed true remorse for his crimes, would God grant him absolution? Should the opportunity for repair be available to all or should certain individuals, through the nature of their crimes, lose that very opportunity? Which of these possible approaches captures the moral high ground? Here, it would seem that, according to the Rambam, Jewish and Catholic traditions part company. For while fundamental Christian theology preaches that repentance remains available to all under all circumstances, the Rambam maintains that repentance is a right which can be lost. Actions speak louder than words. No amount of remorse, contrition, confession or prayer can truly erase the crimes of a Pharaoh, a Hitler or a Stalin. The mobster who confesses to his priest after scores of murders cannot, according to the Rambam, wipe the slate clean.

There comes a point when even a merciful God is unwilling to forgive.

This realization causes the concept of tshuva to become substantially more fragile within our own lives. While, please God, none of us will even come close to the point where the right of repentance is totally denied to us, who knows whether such denial might be applied piecemeal? Perhaps a particular failure can become so habitual, so embedded in our lives, that the opportunity to turn away from that failure is lost.

Who knows where the tipping point might be? The gifts of free will and tshuva should never be taken for granted; we never know the exact moment when those gifts might be taken away.