Va'ayra 3

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Free Will?

Parshas Va'ayra

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The story line of this week’s portion is the first seven of the ten plagues, and Pharoh’s reaction to them.

After each of the plagues the text states that Pharoh’s heart was hardened. In fact before the plagues were even brought on the Egyptians, Hashem told Moshe: "And I (Hashem) shall harden Pharoh’s heart" (Va’ayra Ch.7 V.3).

This verse raises a fundamental question. One of our most basic beliefs is the belief in free will. One of the most prevalent questions one will find among the philosophers is the age-old dilemma of pre-determinism vs. free will.

We believe that every person has the right to choose between good and evil. Only by exercising a choice between good and evil can true goodness be achieved. The choice for good brings about the repairing of the world.

There are certain things in the world that are predetermined: For example one’s appearance, one’s intelligence, and one’s basic character traits.  However, how a person uses these tools, whether for good or evil, comes into the realm of free will. The Talmud says: "Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven." Clearly, fear of heaven refers to free will! (Tractate Brochos 33a) 

If one has free will, how could Hashem have hardened Pharoh’s heart? Did this not eliminate Pharoh’s free will? 

Rabbi Dessler, of blessed memory, gives a brilliant answer:

Whenever a person is called upon to make a choice, all the options are weighed. In certain situations, though, it is nearly impossible to even consider choosing between two options, as one option so clearly outweighs the other. For example, if you were asked, "what would you rather have for breakfast, poison or cereal?" This is not an exercise in free will; rather it is a simple rational choice.

In Pharoh’s case the choice was just as obvious: To continue to enslave the Jews, and to let the country be totally destroyed, or to live in a prosperous, albeit slave-less, society, by letting the Jews go.

Because of his wickedness, Hashem removed from him the fear a normal person would have of being totally destroyed, and so the two choices appeared more balanced than they really were. He still retained the ability (free will) to set the Jews free if he realized what he was doing was wrong. But he was unable to free them, because his heart was hardened to any fear of the plagues.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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