The Question That is Posed by Everyone – Rav Michael Susman
In this week’s parsha we encounter one of the most famous theological problems that appear in Chumash, namely the apparent denial of free will to Paro. Hashem proclaims that “I will harden Paro’s heart and multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (7:3). No lesser authority than Ramban, in his commentary on that passuk, refers to this as “the question that is posed by everyone.” How can it be that Hashem hardened Paro’s heart so that he would be capable of withstanding the onslaught of the plagues, thereby preventing him from repenting? If God hardened Paro’s heart, what was his sin? Surely, a person can only be held responsible for sins if he had the opportunity to behave differently!
As with all famous questions, a number of equally well known answers are offered. Rashi suggests that the hardening of Paro’s heart and his subsequent inability to repent was a result of God concluding that Paro, having ignored the first five plagues that were visited upon Mitzrayim, was in fact unwilling to repent. He only hardened Paro’s heart when it became apparent that while further plagues might batter Paro into submission they would not bring about true repentance. At that point Hashem switched modes, choosing to use the continued pillorying of Paro and his people as a tool to demonstrate to Bnei Yisrael His greatness. Presumably, witnessing such an overwhelming display of involvement and power would engender a sense of awe and wonderment amongst Am Yisrael and create a positive basis for the relationship between God and His nascent nation. Hashem therefore hardened Paros’ heart so that he would not succumb to the pressure of the makkot. According to Rashi, this is the purpose of the signs that Hashem demonstrates by punishing Paro. Through his punishment of Paro and Mitzrayim Am Yisrael will recognize God’s might.
A second, equally well known answer is suggested by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (6:3). There Rambam points out that there are different types and levels of sin which carry with them varying degrees of punishment. Regardless of the severity of the sin, however, the path of Teshuva generally remains open to the sinner. Nonetheless, there are certain categories of sin which are so grievous, or alternately the simple volume of sin that an individual has accumulated is so overwhelming, that the punishment that is meted out is the withdrawal of the possibility of repentance. Thus it is with Paro and the Mitzrim. Their behavior toward Am Yisrael was so vicious and brutal that they are punished by being denied the opportunity to repent. (It is interesting to note that Rambam does not limit his proof cases to Paro, but demonstrates that a similar phenomenon existed with Sichon, the king of Emori who Hashem “forced” to enter an ultimately disastrous war against Bnei Yisrael, and with Am Yisrael themselves during the time of Eliyahu.)
Ramban, who quotes both these answers, indicates that both are correct (“v’yesh bo shnei taamim v’shneihem emet”). Ralbag not only builds on this theme, but expands it by essentially merging the two explanations into one. At the very end of his explanation of the storyline of the beginning the Parsha (page 77 in the Yeshivat Birkat Moshe edition) Ralbag asks our question and answers by explaining that Paro and the Egyptians were evil, as demonstrated by both their treatment of Am Yisrael and their moral depravity (which is separately decried as “maase Eretz Mitzrayim” in Sefer VaYikra). As a result they deserved severe punishment, regardless of whether they allowed Bnei Yisrael to depart or not. This is of course reminiscent of Rambam’s approach. Ralbag then adds that one of the reasons that God punishes evil is to show his involvement (Hashgacha) for the benefit of those who are good. In this case seeing the Egyptians punished strengthens the emunah of Am Yisrael, and this emunah will create the merit that ultimately enables them to conquer Eretz Yisrael. This idea of course echoes Rashi’s approach of Hashem’s wish to punish Mitzrayim so that Bnei Yisrael would benefit by witnessing Hashem’s might. Thus, according to Ralbag, the major themes of both approaches converge into a single, seamless explanation.
Two final answers that I would like to consider to our question are advanced by Seforno and Shadal (Rav Shmuel David Luzatto). (There are, of course several other answers that have been proposed to answer this question. For a good overview of the major positions, see Nechama Leibowitz’s Iyunin B’Sefer Shemot pp110-116 in the Hebrew edition.)
Seforno rejects the very basis of our question, namely that God hardened Paro’s heart in order to prevent him from repenting. In fact, posits Seforno, Hashem hardens Paro’s heart for precisely the opposite reason, in order to enable him and his people to do teshuva.
While this statement seems to fly in the face of the simple meaning of the passuk, upon closer inspection it is in fact quite logical. Seforno accepts the premise that had Hashem not hardened Paro’s heart then Paro would have been incapable of withstanding the pressure, and as a result would have released Am Yisrael from bondage. Unlike other commentaries, however, Seforno doesn’t see this as the denial of the free will necessary to repent but rather a reaffirmation of the very principle of teshuva. Had Hashem not hardened Paro’s heart then Paro’s inevitable decision to release Am Yisrael would not have been the consequence of introspection and regret of his previous actions, elements which represent the very essence of teshuva. Rather, it would have been merely a weary act of surrender to a superior power. Instead, Hashem hardens Paro’s heart so that Paro will remain free to repent not out of coercion but as a statement of submission to Hashem. Had he wished, Paro could have repented right up to the last minute. But Paro refuses to do so.
Shadal goes even further. According to Shadal, despite what it says in the passuk Hashem did not even harden Paro’s heart! Rather, the hardening of Paro’s heart was an act of Paro’s own free will. If this is the case, then what does the Torah mean when it tells us that it was Hashem who hardened Paro’s heart?
Shadal ingeniously suggests that anytime something unimaginable happens we attribute the situation to God. It is our only way of explaining an otherwise unfathomable phenomenon. That is what happens here as well. Paro’s continued obstinacy is simply inexplicable. What is he thinking!?! How can it not be as obvious to him as it is to us that his ongoing stubbornness will only lead to greater destruction? The only explanation that we can offer is that Hashem is hardening his heart. According to this approach, the passuk is reflecting our lack of a logical interpretation for Paro’s actions, and not anything that Hashem has in fact done.
I was reminded of these two answers when reading the essay on Parshat Va’Erah in Darosh Darash Yosef, Rav Avishai David’s new book summarizing some of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s thoughts on Chumash. The Rav explains that despite the fact that we all have free will our choices are in fact constrained by pragmatic considerations. We all make decisions which we regret, decisions which in retrospect are embarrassingly wrongheaded. So what were we thinking? More often than not the answer is that we weren’t. We can be so blinded by circumstance that we are incapable of making a dispassionate decision.
The Rav suggests that this was how Hashem “hardened” Paro’s heart. He didn’t actually prevent Paro from making the correct decision. He simply left him to choose between two seemingly impossible options. Paro could choose to free Am Yisrael. But at what price? Egypt had become a slave-based society, and the economic repercussion of freeing their slaves was likely too great to contemplate. From Paro’s perspective the lesser of two evils was very possibly to try and ride out the storm and hold on to his slaves. God did not harden Paro’s heart. He merely forced him into an impossible public policy situation.
In this context it is interesting to note that Paro’s rationale for giving chase to Am Yisrael after they escape is economic. “Mah zot asinu ki shilachnu et Yisrael meavdenu” – “What have we done that we have released Yisrael from servitude!” (14:5). Paro and the Egyptians just want their slaves back.
When the United States found itself dissolving on the eve of the Civil War the situation was very similar. The Northern States, which found themselves in the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, had no need for slaves, and therefore had no problem with abolishing the institution of slavery. The Southern States, which were highly dependent on slave labor to keep their agriculturally-based economy humming, saw things very differently. What others saw as a moral abomination which needed to be eradicated Southerners saw as an economic necessity. They could not contemplate economic survival without slavery, and the union was fated to nearly collapse because the Southern States “hardened” their collective heart based on fear of change. The irony of course is that the destruction that was caused by this decision was far greater than what would have been caused by abandoning slavery.
In the same way the destruction of Egyptian society was ensured by Paro’s decision to try and save it by resisting God. Circumstances often fool us into thinking that the most indefensible decisions are in fact rational. It becomes clear that we don’t need God to harden our hearts in order to lead us to destruction. Unfortunately, we are all too capable of doing so on our own.