Torah | Where is free will when God hardens Pharaohs heart

Exodus 10:1-13:16
Jeremiah 46:13-28

This week’s parashah opens with God directing Moses: “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his followers, in order that I may display my signs among them” (Exodus 10:1). How are we to understand this apparent negation of Pharaoh’s free will? If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, we can hardly blame Pharaoh for resisting Moses and Aaron’s pleas for liberation. In addition, how do we understand a God who causes a potentially yielding foe to stiffen his resolve and prolong the Israelites’ suffering?

The motif of Pharaoh’s hardened heart appears no less than 20 times in the Book of Exodus. Each of the Ten Plagues is connected to a specific incident of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. The 13th-century Spanish commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Ramban or Nachmanides) notes that in the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. But in the last five, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Ramban quotes the midrashic collection Exodus Rabbah, which explains that while each of us exercises free will, if we continually make poor choices, God eventually closes the door to teshuvah (repentance).

Or to present this explanation from a psychological perspective, each of us is endowed with free will. But over time, we build up patterns of behavior that largely dictate the decisions we make. As Charles Duhigg points out in “The Power of Habit,” to confront the thousands of minute decisions we face daily, we rely upon patterns of behavior to navigate from one moment to the next. If we decide to oppress and harm those around us, after a period of time we will automatically do so without giving our actions a second thought. Therefore the heart we once hardened ourselves will become hardened on its own to the point of calcification.

While salient, this explanation leaves us with the unsatisfying conclusion that repentance is sometime unavailable to those who need it most. Luckily, Nachmanides offers a second answer. After the first five plagues, Pharaoh could become so fearful of God that his resolve would weaken and he would let the Israelites go. But this melting of Pharaoh’s heart would be due to fear, not teshuvah. The schoolyard bully may delay his bullying while the teacher is watching, but he later returns to his violence. And so God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, to restore his free will and allow him to act independently of potential consequence, to demonstrate his true character before the Israelites and the Egyptian nation.

The 11th-century commentator Rashi also sees Pharaoh as a cunning tormentor. Rashi believes that if Pharaoh had granted Moses and Aaron’s request after any of the first five plagues, such peace would have been fleeting and Pharaoh eventually would have returned to his oppressive nature. After all, Pharaoh still attempts to subjugate the Israelites even after all of the Ten Plagues!

A temporary peace only gives the oppressor the opportunity to reload and reconsider strategies. Therefore, when dealing with a tyrannical enemy, it is best to eschew a fleeting truce in favor of a forceful solution. A dramatic and devastating punishment erases the chance for reprisal, ultimately saving additional lives that might be lost in a drawn-out conflict.

In this way, Rashi’s argument echoes the reasoning for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. An overwhelming blow, while tragic, carries the potential for rapid closure and resolution. And so God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to swiftly bring about the punishment that Pharaoh eventually will suffer either way. In this way, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart does not lengthen the Israelites’ suffering but rather hastens a conclusion in which Israel departs from Egypt.

Throughout the story of Passover and Pharaoh’s increasingly hardened heart, our commentators staunchly defend the principle of free will. At no point does tradition sway from its foundational value of individual accountability. Ultimately, each of us stands as a creation of our choices. As God reminds us in Parashat Nitzavim, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” The answer is up to us.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].