Bo: On Pharoahs choice and human responsibility

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Exodus 10:1-13:6

Jeremiah 46:13-28

The Ten Commandments begin with a reference to the God "who brought you out of Egypt," rather than to the One "who created the heavens and the earth." When introducing the Decalogue, the biblical writer chose to use the Exodus narrative because it teaches that God, creator of heaven and earth, cares about more than just cosmic matters: God has a personal interest in humankind's welfare.

Subtle though it may be, this difference finds expression in this week's Torah portion, Bo, which deals with the issue of free will and predestination.

Bo begins with the words, "Then the Lord said to Moses, `Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them–in order that you may know that I am the Lord'"(Exodus 10:1-2).

In each instance, when Pharaoh appeared to waver during a plague, nearly acceding to Moses' and Aaron's demands, "the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart, and [Pharaoh] would not let the Israelites go"(Exodus 7-14).

In Exodus, Pharaoh is characterized as the primary villain. However, if Pharaoh acted as he did because God made him do so, then did the Israelites suffer because of Pharaoh or because of God? What are we to think when we read how God told Moses what to tell Pharaoh, knowing full well that His words would fall on deaf ears — and knowing how frustrated Moses would be? Exodus is not the only place in the Bible where God appears responsible for the devastating circumstances that befall an individual. In the Book of Job, for example, God empowers a sinister antagonist to test Job's loyalty, resulting in catastrophe for Job.

God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart raises the serious question of whether human beings have any control over their destiny. In Bruce J. Friedman's play "Steam Bath," God is depicted as a steam-bath attendant who randomly causes disasters and tragedies without justification. All the individuals subject to His whim appear to be hapless performers who play no role in the accidents that befall them.

If God, in fact, determined Pharaoh's behavior, then Pharaoh had no opportunity to act independently of God's predetermined plan. In that case, Pharaoh can neither be blamed nor portrayed as such a malevolent character. Furthermore, if we can say this about Pharaoh, then we can say it about every other demonic figure with whom Jews have contended through the ages.

Conversely, if God does not know our fate, then how powerful could God be?

Talmudic-era rabbis struggled with this issue. The biblical text says that not only did God harden Pharaoh's heart, but also Pharaoh hardened his own heart. From this, the rabbis of the Talmud concluded that Pharaoh's repeated hardening of his own heart is what finally moved God to harden Pharaoh's heart without reservation. The rabbis saw Pharaoh's own intractability as the ultimate cause for God's intervention. Thus, they determined that Pharaoh had control over his own destiny. They concluded that God warns a person several times before that person, disregarding God's voice, seals his or her own fate (Exodus Rabbah 11:6).

In this way, the rabbis resolved the tension between predestination and free will. They concluded that both mortals and God play roles in human destiny, and that is why the God we meet as the Decalogue opens is He "who brought you out of Egypt."