In describing to Moses the course of events that is to unfold leading to the Israelites’ exodus from the slavery of Egypt, G-d says, “And I shall harden Pharoah’s heart and I shall [thereby] multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Sh’mot 7:3). This hardening of Pharoah’s heart continues throughout the series of ten plagues with which He punished the Egyptians until the final climax at the crossing of the Red Sea when after the people of Israel left Egypt, “G-d hardened the heart of Pharaoh the king of Egypt,” as a result of which, “he pursued the Israelites. (Sh’mot 14:8)” Again and again, G-d ostensibly alters Pharaoh’s inclination and entices Pharaoh to act in a harsh manner.
This act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart has raised the question of human free will. In Devarim 30:19, G-d tells us, “And you shall choose life.” It is up to us to choose what sort of life we wish to lead. In Sh’mot 15:26, Moses tells us: “If you shall heed the voice of the L-rd your G-d and you shall do that which is right in His eyes and you will heed His precepts and keep His statutes, all the evil that I administered in Egypt I will not administer to you.” Once again, in this verse, we are apparently told that good or evil that we incur is a result of our free actions. Yet, in Pharaoh’s case, he is forced, ostensibly, against his will to act in a manner that he does not wish.
In approaching this problem, R. Saadia Gaon and Rambam (Maimonides) offer different solutions. R. Saadia, unequivocally affirming free will, states in his Emunot ve-Deot 4:6 that the expression of hardening the heart merely denotes the bestowal of courage to do as one wishes. In other words, Pharaoh actually desired to act as he did but only required the courage to act according to his desire. Thus, Pharaoh’s will, according to R. Saadia was not altered. In contrast to R. Saadia, Rambam in the eighth chapter of his “Shemona Perakim” admits that Pharaoh’s freedom was restricted. However, Rambam argues, this restriction of Pharaoh’s will was a penal measure and exceptional. Rambam explains that one is usually free to act as he or she wills, but one may forfeit that freedom if he or she abuses it. Pharaoh’s primary offence was not that he did not allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. Pharaoh’s sin consisted of his previous tyrannical treatment of the people of Israel, which he did of his own accord and as a result of free choice. His loss of freedom in complying with Moses’ request to let the Israelites go was already in the nature of a punishment, and its object was to let all the world know that a person may forfeit freedom of action as a punishment for abusing the privilege. Rambam posits that we normally have free will, but when we abuse this freedom, G-d may restrict it as a punishment for our evil actions.
Whether we, in fact, are free to act as we wish is a question that has been discussed by thinkers through the ages. Since the time of Democritus, who was born ca. 460 BCE, there have been deterministic theories of physical causation. During the Renaissance, it became almost a scientific obsession that every event had a cause and that it was the task of scientists to ferret out that cause. However, in the early part of the 20th century, the “principle of indeterminacy” was admitted as scientifically viable. The principle of indeterminacy asserts that it is not possible to measure, in an exact manner, the position of an electron at the same time that its mass and velocity are measured. Consequently, it was realized that if the movements of the electron are undetermined, i.e. that they cannot be measured adequately enough to properly speak of their causes, then indeterminacy is admissible of other phenomena as well. And, in answer to the Russian psychologist Pavlov, who conducted a series of experiments with dogs, whereby he wished to demonstrate that every human action is a conditioned response, it has been argued that even if it is true that there are definite causes of our belief and behavior, we could never know this to be the case. Consequently, since psychological events such as fear and hate cannot be isolated for study, then the notion of finding its causal antecedents is senseless.
To be sure, we may, theoretically speaking, not have the freedom to act in accordance with our will. However, we cannot demonstrate this to be the case. Consequently, we should act in accordance with the assumption that we have free will, and, therefore, exercise this free will to our benefit; for, if we have no free will, we lose nothing thereby, but, if we do have free will, we thereby gain everything.
Let us exercise our free will to pray three times a day, to study the Torah each day, to keep the Sabbath, holidays and fast days, and to obey the laws of justice and respect and concern for our fellow Jew, the laws of niddah and procreation and the dietary laws.
In Devarim 30:15-19, G-d informs us: “See I gave you today life and good, and death and evil. I have commanded you today to love your G-d, to go in His ways and to keep His precepts and His statutes and His laws and you shall live and you shall increase and the L-rd your G-d shall bless you…and you shall choose life.”
Let us not wait for G-d to harden our hearts like that of Pharaoh and, thereby, cause our destruction. Let us, rather, harden our own hearts in the ways of G-d and, thereby, flourish spiritually in this world and enjoy everlasting bliss and harmony in the world to come.