Parshat Va’era: Was Pharaoh Really Denied his Free Will?

Was Pharaoh Really Denied his Free Will?

Adv. Tamar Oderberg is a legal  advocate at Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline

Tamar Oderberg“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 7, 3).  These words evoke immediate astonishment, as they seem to shatter one of Judaism’s most basic principles – free will.  What was Pharaoh’s sin if he was seemingly denied free will?  If God was the one who stiffened his heart and prevented him from letting the People of Israel go?

The question at hand has been tackled by many rabbinic commentators. They offer a variety of answers.  If we read the verses carefully, we will notice that despite God’s outright proclamation that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, no such action was taken during the first five plagues.  In fact, from the verses themselves it appears that Pharaoh’s hardening-of-heart was done by his own free will: “And Pharaoh’s heart was hard…”; “And he made his heart hard…”; “And Pharaoh hardened his heart…”.  Only from the sixth plague onward it is written explicitly: “And God hardened the heart of Pharaoh” and “Because I have made his heart hard”.

R’ Ovadia Sforno explains that this supposed denial of free will does not, in fact, entail taking away a person’s freedom of choice; rather, the person’s own choice is reinforced. In other words, Pharaoh made a very clear choice.  God did not harden his heart nor prevent him from choosing an alternative; rather, he strengthened Pharoah’s heart so that he might be able to endure the suffering caused by the choice he had already made. 

R’ Shmuel David Luzzatto explains that Pharaoh acted with full freedom throughout; however, his refusal to let the People of Israel go after the final plagues was so bizarre and illogical that it was attributed to God.

In his book Hilchot Teshuvah, the Rambam offers another explanation.  In his opinion, every person ultimately makes his/her own decision.  However, although one has complete freedom of choice at the outset, once the choice is made, it is far more difficult to change tracks.  Hence, if one chooses to tread the evil path and perseveres, it will be far more difficult to suddenly choose the path of good.  This does not mean there is no free will; however, there is far less room for maneuver. 

As was mentioned above, the belief that a person has free will is one of the pillars of Judaism. 

In his book, Life-Changing Ideas, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z”l writes that in today’s modern time, brain researchers have discovered that neural pathways connecting different parts of the brain also shape behavior patterns.  These are not necessarily positive.  For instance, a person might use dangerous drugs of his own free will in order to distract himself and avoid emotions such as fear or anxiety.  The more times a person repeats a certain behavior, the more instinctive and immediate it becomes.  Once a behavior pattern has become a habit, it becomes all the more difficult to rid oneself of it.  In order to overcome fixed patterns of behavior, we must acquire new routines.  But this does not suffice.  We must persevere, turning the new behaviors into habits.  And this is no easy feat. 

Rabbi Sacks notes that studies have shown that a minimum of 66 days is required to acquire any new habit.  This scientific explanation is very much in keeping with the words of the Rambam.  In Va’era, it appears that Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites leave Egypt during the first five plagues created a fixed pattern of behavior, which became a habit almost impossible to break.  The minute something becomes a fixed habit, our free will is greatly diminished, because we no longer use the primal freedom of choice we were given; rather, we are motivated by force of habit. 

From all the above, we can see that our freedom is not a given, nor is it absolute.  We may lose it at any moment, in much the same way Pharaoh did, and as is often the case with people who repeatedly make bad choices, and become addicted to drugs or alcohol etc.

This is something I encounter on a daily basis.  I represent agunot and mesoravot get (women denied their Jewish divorce) in the Rabbinical Courts.  Recalcitrant husbands who have persistently refused to give their wives a get may find their hearts hardening after a time.  In the State of Israel, sanctions may be imposed against a man who refuses to give his wife a get, the Jewish divorce document. The Rabbinical Courts use this tool both sparingly and gradually.  There are husbands who set their wives free after the first set of sanctions.  But there are others who will not let go of their bad habit until the most severe penalty is imposed on them.  In the State of Israel there is a unique type of prisoner – recalcitrant husbands.  These are the only prisoners who are in prison by choice.  They are free to go the minute they utter a simple consent to divorce their wives.  But their hearts are hard, and the habit they have acquired – denying their wives a divorce – has also denied them, quite ironically, of their own free will, their own freedom. 

Freedom is an achievement.  This week’s portion teaches us that even a mighty person like Pharaoh can lose his freedom.  Freedom should never be taken for granted.  A person who adheres to negative patterns of behavior will ultimately turn these into fixed habits that will prevent him from being a truly free person.  As a public, we try and assist those who have turned towards evil and have made it a way of life. There are rehabilitation programs for offenders and rehabilitation centers for addicts.  When it comes to get-refusal and recalcitrant spouses, we must do more to mitigate this phenomenon and uproot it before it spreads, so that it does not turn into a way of life.    

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