Posted by: Subway Conductor | January 15, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Va’era

This week’s Torah portion presents the first seven of the ten plagues. The last three are in next week’s parsha. I want to look at one phrase that we find in our portion which is very significant for one of the most important topics in Jewish philosophy. The phrase is that “G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

Moses and Aaron have told Pharaoh “Let my people go!” Pharaoh refuses and a plague comes upon Egypt. As a result he relents and decides to let the Israelites leave. However, his heart is hardened and he refuses to let them go. Another plague comes and we repeat the routine. The problem is that if G-d hardened his heart, then how can Pharaoh be held culpable for his actions? If someone does not have free will, then he is not responsible for his actions. He had no choice in the matter. It is like the famous line from the movie the Godfather, “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

There are religions that teach predestination. That is the belief that everything in a person’s life is determined for them at birth. Everything has already been decided in advance. There are modern forms of this belief as well. Some think that our lives are completely determined by our genes. We really do not have free choice because our genetic make-up determines our personality and our character.

Judaism has always maintained the belief that we do have free will and free choice. We can be judged for our actions precisely because we have the ability to choose.

We find this same problem in another philosophical conundrum. If G-d is omniscient, then G-d knows what I am going to do before I do it. If so, do I have free choice? Without getting into the weeds of the philosophical arguments, we can point out that Jewish philosophers over the centuries have attempted to reconcile divine omniscience with free will. They have always tried to find a way to explain how we can have free will despite G-d’s fore-knowledge of our actions.

There is another way of looking at the problem of free will. I have known people who grew up Orthodox and at some point in their lives became less observant, or non-observant. For whatever reason. But more than one has told me that the first time they turned a light on during Shabbos, they waited for a few seconds to see if they would be struck by lightning. This kind of thinking is, of course, a very strong deterrent. But, we might ask, “why doesn’t the world work like this?” There are many mitzvot – commandments- in the Torah that G-d wants us to observe. There are positive commandments that require us to do something and negative commandments that forbid us from doing something. Why didn’t G-d create the world in such a way that when we transgress a commandment, we are immediately and severely punished? If every time someone was about to speak leshon hara – negative speech concerning someone – they got a severe pain in the stomach that caused them to double over, then they would, after several experiences of this pain, stop talking leshon hara. If any time someone was about to engage in some dishonest business practice, they received an electric shock that knocked them off their chair, they wouldn’t do it. If G-d wanted everyone to observe the commandments, then the world could have been created in this way and no one would speak leshon hara, no one would engage in dishonest business practices, and everyone would punctiliously observe the most minute details of Shabbos. But, it is clear that the world was not created in this way and that G-d does not want us to observe the commandments out of fear of punishment or out of a desire for reward. It is certainly true that Judaism does have beliefs about reward and punishment both in this world and in an after-life. However, we have not been taught that we should observe the mitzvot out of fear of punishment or in order to get a reward. In Pirkei Avot we find the statement, “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to get a reward.” Judaism emphasizes that we should choose to observe the commandments out of a desire to do the will of G-d and out of a commitment to do the right thing. G-d created human beings with free will so that they could choose. It is clear already in the Garden of Eden story. When Adam and Eve are created, they are given just one commandment. And they promptly transgress it. The point is that they have freedom of choice whether to observe the commandment or not. Therefore, they can be held culpable and receive punishment.

Now back to our portion and our problematic phrase. If we understand “G-d hardened his heart” to mean that He made it impossible for him to freely choose, then Pharaoh cannot be held responsible. But I think there is another way of understanding this phrase. The Hebrew word translated “harden” does not really mean to “make hard.” Rather, it means to strengthen. So, I would translate the phrase, “G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart.” He gave him the fortitude to stand up to the power of the plagues so that he could do what he wanted to do. After the first plague, certainly after the second or third, Pharaoh should have given in. He and his country were being severely damaged by the plagues. But G-d strengthened his heart, he gave him the resolve to persist in his own ways and choices and to stand up to the coercion of the plagues. I think that G-d actually gave him more free will, not less. The point is to emphasize that Pharaoh acted with free will despite the enormous pressure put on him by the persistent destructive plagues. G-d wanted to teach Pharaoh a lesson. He wanted to show Pharaoh that he was not a god, but that there is only one G-d who controls all of nature. But to teach him this lesson, Pharaoh had to be able to freely choose to persist in his evil ways.

The lesson that we should learn from this episode is that we do have fee will. We should choose to observe the commandments not because we want to avoid punishment or seek reward, but because the mitzvot are “our life and the length of our days.” They are the source from which we can obtain meaning and purpose in our lives. Their observance is our highest duty and our greatest privilege.

Good Shabbos!

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