Pharaoh’s Free Choice

Parashat Va’erah 5782

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

One of the more profound concepts in Judaism is free choice between good and bad.  The idea that in any situation, a person has the freedom to choose between good and bad is one of the foundations of Jewish faith. Divine reward or punishment stems from this concept as well. Another foundational concept in Judaism is the option of repentance. No matter what a person did, they have the ability to repent and atone for their deeds. In this week’s parasha, Parashat Va’erah, we read the description of godly proceedings that raise questions regarding the existence of free choice and the ability to repent in any situation, and the greatest of Jewish thinkers have pondered this question at length.

We are discussing G-d’s handling of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.  After centuries of the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Jewish people, G-d sends Moses to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, but announces in advance that this is going to be a long process that will include great punishments brought upon the Egyptians in order to publicize G-d’s presence in the world. We go on to read in this parasha about seven of the ten plagues that come one after the other: blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, livestock pestilence, boils, and hail. The justification for punishing the Egyptians over and over in different ways is that each time a plague passed, Pharaoh went back on his promise to liberate the chosen nation and “hardened his heart,” meaning – he ignored the signs from above.

But how could Pharaoh ignore the difficult plagues afflicting him one after another? The answer to this is found in G-d’s words to Moses when he sends him to ask Pharaoh to release the nation:

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
(Exodus 7, 3)

We can understand from this verse that G-d planned to harden Pharaoh’s heart, meaning to cause him to ignore the plagues and go back to his ways. At first glance, it seems that G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice and possibility of repentance! Various explanations have been offered for this, one of which is by Rabbi Joseph Albo.

Rabbi Joseph Albo, a rabbi and philosopher, was active in Spain at the start of the 15th century.  This was a time of great crisis in the Jewish community when many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity.  His book, Sefer Ha’Ikarim, dealt with the fundamentals of Judaism. Rabbi Albo related to the question of Pharaoh’s free choice and offered a fascinating explanation: If the sinner decides to change his ways after G-d punishes him, it would not be from free choice, but rather due to being coerced.  The punishment coerced him into changing his behavior.  Therefore, G-d always leaves the sinner an opening to view the punishment as coincidental, seemingly not coming from G-d or having any connection to the sinner’s bad acts.  And thus, the element of coercion in the punishment disappears, and the person reverts to his natural position and is again offered complete freedom to choose between good and bad.

That’s what G-d did to Pharaoh.  He provided him with the opportunity to interpret the punishments afflicting him as coincidental, and thus gave him back the choice of whether or not to obey G-d, until the next plague…

This understanding of Rabbi Joseph Albo’s contains a profound message.  We are almost always confident that our choices are free ones, but in all situations, we must ask ourselves: Is this really what I want? Are there people influencing my choice? Sometimes we are biased.  There might be a hint of coercion impacting our choices – various events, fears, strong feelings that could cause a change of heart and lead us to make a choice that is not completely our own. G-d asks of us to make true, authentic, and voluntary choices; to be conscious of our deeply-seated desires. G-d asks us to choose life from a place of the most profound freedom. To be people who choose means to apply, in the loftiest sense, our advantages as humans created in the image of G-d.



Today January 19, 2022

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Interesting Facts

The Western Wall Plaza hosts approximately 60,000 people. It symbolizes the Jewish link to Jerusalem and serves as the synagogue closest to the remains of both Holy Temples.
The Western Wall's visible stones tell of its history from the time of the Holy Temples' ruin. The original Herodian stones are distinct from the others in size and in their unique borders.
The building style of "grading" used when layering the Western Wall's stones, teaches us that the Temple Mount's walls were not perpendicular but marginally sloping.

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