Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Parshat Vaera 3

“G-d said to Moshe… ‘Speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart...” (Exodus 7; 2-3). These verses raise two obvious questions - what does it mean when G-d hardens a persons heart? How does that accord with our understanding of free choice? Furthermore, if G-d has stated that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, what point is there in sending Moshe and Aharon to speak to him? This seems like mockery, asking Pharaoh to do something which has become impossible for him to do.

The Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuva 5; 1 ff.): Each person has the opportunity to turn themselves towards the good path and be righteous, or to choose to follow the path of evil, and become wicked. This the meaning of the verse “Behold mankind is like one of us to know good and evil” (Genesis 3; 22). This means that human beings are unique in the world in that through their own intellect they know the difference between good and evil, and do whichever they desire, without anyone (or anything) preventing them. This principle is a foundation of the Torah and commandments for if G-d would decree that a person would be righteous or wicked, or if there were something forcing a person to a certain path, how could G-d command us to act in a certain way, or how could the prophets chastise us and instruct us to improve our actions?

However, it is possible that a person could sin so grievously, or so often, that strict justice dictates that they must be punished for this, and therefore have their free choice removed so that they are prevented from repentance. Therefore the Torah writes “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7; 3). Since he sinned initially of his own choice, and acted evilly against Israel who were living in his land, justice therefore dictates that he eventually lose the option of repentance. Why then did G-d send Moshe to him to tell him to send the Jews from his land and repent, if that option was already removed from him? If a person should do something of their own free will, G-d may remove from them the ability to repent and they must die in their wickedness.

We have a principle that G-d helps a person to follow the path that they chose. Pharaoh chose to be stubborn and obstinate, therefore G-d caused him to take his path to its conclusion. His decisions to oppress and kill the Jews, and then refuse to listen to Moshe and Aaron, caused G-d to take him to a point where the gates of repentance were sealed before him.

Pharaoh was not the only one to exhibit this trait of stubbornness. G-d accuses the Jewish nation of being ‘a stiff-necked people’ at the time of the Golden Calf (ibid. 32; 9), and cites this as the reason that His presence will not remain within the midst of the nation (ibid. 33; 3). Yet despite their stubbornness, when confronted with the enormity of their sin they readily repent, as evidenced by their removal of the crowns that they gained at Sinai (ibid. 5).

Rambam writes (Hilchot Gerushin 1; 1) that a bill of divorce (get) may only be written with the voluntary consent of the husband. Yet later (2; 20) he writes that in a case where the law mandates that a husband should give his wife a get and he refuses, the beis din (Jewish court of law) should whip him until he says ‘I want to give my wife a get’. The Rambam is telling us that sometimes a person’s stubbornness gets in the way of their true intentions. Therefore whipping them removes the stubbornness, and enables them to give the divorce willingly.

In a sense this is what G-d was doing to Pharaoh. He smote him and all of Egypt with plagues to see whether he would repent and let the Jews go voluntarily. Only after the sixth plague, when it was clear that Pharaoh’s inner desire was not to repent did G-d actually intervene to harden his heart. By this time if Pharaoh were to repent it would not be in order to bring him closer to G-d, but only to avoid the plagues. He had reached the point where he needed to follow through and see the consequences of his actions, and receive his due punishment.

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