Hardening the Hearts for the Sake of Free Choice

This sheet on Exodus 5 was written by Shoshana Michael Zucker for 929 and can also be found here

Pharaoh sits on his throne and says: “No!”

“I do not know the Eternal, and I will not will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).

This declaration marks the beginning of the battle between Pharaoh‎ and God, in which God strives not only to liberate the Israelites but also to produce a magnificent, albeit destructive, show of power intended to prove God’s unique divinity to Egyptians and Israelites alike.

Ten times during the story of the Exodus, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. Another ten times, it says that God did the hardening. Between one hardening of the heart and another, Pharaoh relents and agrees to allow the Israelites to leave, but soon has second thoughts and hardens his heart again. Pharaoh’s independent behavior is comprehensible. He takes a strong position of principle, responds to conditions in the field, and resumes his previous position when conditions improve; over and over again.

But why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Must proving divine power come at such a high cost?

Maimonides, who declared free will a major foundational principle of Torah, explains that Pharaoh is denied his freedom as a punishment, after he sinned severely (Laws of Repentance, 6:3). Yet elsewhere Maimonides clearly states that God does not actively intervene in the world; Pharaoh was not deprived of his freedom. Rather he lost it by succumbing to his own bad habits. Likely this was not the first time he behaved in this manner, which allowed God to foresee the entire process, and tell Moses how it would progress even before the first plague.

Another school of interpretation, represented by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 15-16th century) explains that hardening Pharaoh’s heart was intended to give him an opportunity to make right decision for the right reason: “If his heart had not been hardened, Pharaoh surely would have released the Israelites but [only] because he could no longer tolerate the plagues.” By this reading, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against suffering, but he still had the ability to make the correct choice.

None of us are Pharaoh but we each have our own bad habits. Sforno’s reading alerts us to the strenuous effort needed to break those habits. We remain endowed with freedom of choice but using it requires hard work. The Torah will later commands us to choose life and good, but it never promises that it will be easy.

Shoshana Michael Zucker is a translator and editor and lives in Kfar Saba

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