Parashat Bo: When do we have free will?

0 Comments 17 January 2018

What does it mean to have free will? In our modern era, what prevents us from enjoying true freedom of choice? In his dvar Torah to Parashat Bo, Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg examines these important questions that our sages have been pondering for generations.

Moses before Pharaoh. IMAGE: 6th century miniature from Syriac bible of Paris. CC-Public domain

By Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg

“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst,” -Exodus 10: 1

There are many verses in the Torah in the first readings in the Book of Exodus in which Hashem tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. That is to say that Pharaoh will not respond to the plagues and free the people of Israel, but rather every time G-d will stop the plague he will change his mind and decide not to let the people go. Of course this contradicts the principle of free choice. In the “Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides says that this principle of free choice is “the backbone of the Torah and Mitzvoth” because without it, a person would not be responsible for his actions and it is impossible to judge him according to his deeds.

“Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his… This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and mitzvoth as [Deuteronomy 30:15] states: ‘Behold, I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil].’ Similarly, [Deuteronomy 11:26] states, ‘Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],’ implying that the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil. Therefore, [Deuteronomy 5:26] states: ‘If only their hearts would always remain this way.’ From this, we can infer that the Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Rather, everything is left to their [own choice]…. He desired that man have free choice and be responsible for his deeds, without being pulled or forced. Consequently, the prophets taught that a person is judged for his deeds, according to his deeds – whether good or bad. This is a fundamental principle on which is dependent all the words of prophecy.” -From Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 5, halacha 1-5

Rambam says later that “There are many verses in the Torah and the words of the prophets which appear to contradict this fundamental principle. [Thus,] the majorities of the people err because of them and think that the Holy One, blessed be He, does decree that a person commit evil or good and that a person’s heart is not given over to him to direct it towards any path he desires -hilchot Teshuva, 6,1. Amongst the most prominent examples of this contradiction are the verses in which Hashem tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh did not himself decide to release the people of Israel, how then is it possible that G-d punished him? Rambam himself answers this question, and there are many other answers from other thinkers. I would like to bring the answer of one of the greatest Hassidic masters amongst the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Menahem Nahum from Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1730-1797) from his book Meor Einayim.

“And here the principle of free choice is as the text told us: ‘Behold, I have set before you today life and good,..choose ye life’ (Deuteronomy 30: 15) And how can a person choose the good from the evil if he has no knowledge, and when the person has the knowledge to distinguish good from evil, then he is able to choose the good and detest evil. And this is the central principle of ‘going out of Egypt’ that the consciousness will emerge from the galut (exile) and free choice will become possible through knowledge, which is not the case in galut when he was in it in Egypt knowledge and thus free choice could not have been possible. And therefore free choice was not taken form Pharaoh at all since there was not yet free choice, since it only came into being afterwards when they went out of Egypt and consciousness/knowledge also emerged from the galut (exile). Only then was there the possibility of free choice being applied.”

So what really is “free choice”? Was it only because Egypt had a totalitarian regime that the Egyptians (and also the children of Israel) free choice? But what about Pharaoh himself? He was at the head of the totalitarian regime! It was he who determined the laws! Obviously he had free choice! He had the power and ability to do whatever he wanted! The Meor Einayim explains that freedom of choice is not just a matter of political power. Pharaoh himself, though he was at the head of the greatest power on earth, did not really have free choice. This is because freedom of choice is not a matter of power but rather of knowledge, or to be more exact of consciousness. One has free choice only when one has awareness, full awareness of the existing options. And this does not mean just knowing the practical possibilities, what you can or cannot do, but, more than that, awareness/consciousness of different ways of seeing reality.

Pharaoh was only cognizant of one reality. He was the ruler of a great world power. He was the representative of the gods in the world (or even a god himself)…His highest value was power, more and more power for his kingdom. To build more amazing buildings so that people would be impressed by the power of Egypt. In order to realize this goal he exploited millions of slaves. He didn’t relate to these slaves as human beings with “rights”, but as means to concretize his goal, as parts of the immense machine that was Egypt. These slaves did not have personal rights themselves since it was the state that was the highest value, and whatever Pharaoh decided to do to realize this greatest value was justified! There was no other value other than this. There was no higher power above Pharaoh. It was Pharaoh who determined right and wrong.

“Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out.”- Exodus 5:2

And so G-d had to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not give in to his natural fear of the plagues, so that he would realize just how wrong was his view of reality.

Is it the case that in the modern democratic society of the state of Israel the citizens have free choice as to how they see the world? In one sense, yes, that is the case. We don’t have a regime that forces us to think one way and not another. On the other hand we are so influenced by the media and the narrative they are selling us. How do we look at our neighbours, the Palestinians, who live together with us in this land? Are all of them terrorists who want to wipe us off the map? How do we look at Haredi Jews? As parasites who only exploit us and do not contribute to society? And what about the settlers? Fascists who want to kill as many Arabs as possible and to grab their land? Until we learn to be aware of the narrative of the other, we don’t really have free choice. Of course, the other side too does not truly have it either if he/she does not see us. True freedom of choice can only be possible through the creation of open dialogue, without any preconceived prejudices. May that happen, soon in our day!

Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Special thanks to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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