by Rabbi Dovid Green
One of the more famous questions asked about the process of the exodus from
Egypt is that of Pharaoh's free choice. In several places G-d tells Moshe
that He will harden Pharaoh's heart, and make him stubborn. He'll refuse to
send the Children of Israel. As a result of his stubbornness and refusal,
he'll be punished with plagues progressively until he is humbled. If Pharaoh
is forced to act stubbornly, and it is not of his own free choice to
withhold permission to leave, what is his sin? He is not responsible for his
actions at that point. There is a saying that one who acts in a certain way
out of coercion cannot be praised or criticized for his deed. Besides this,
there is a well known concept that G-d does not give anyone a test he can
not withstand. Doesn't making Pharaoh stubborn contradict this rule?
The Bais HaLevi offers this approach. In truth Pharaoh did not want to send
the Jewish Nation. The plagues were coercing him to go against his will. The
plagues were removing his free choice. G-d gave him an extra dose of
stubbornness in order to offer him the opportunity to do as he truly wished.
From this perspective we can see that Pharaoh can be held 100% responsible
for his actions. He can be criticized and punished because he was exercising
his free will. Giving Pharaoh the extra stubbornness is what gave him the
opportunity to withstand the test with free will intact. Otherwise he is
merely acting out of coercion. In addition, what G-d wanted from Pharaoh was
a change of heart brought about through recognition of His majesty. He
wanted Pharaoh to want to send the Jews, so his free choice played an
important role, and needed to be maintained. The plagues were the display of
G-d's sovereignty over every aspect of the universe. They were the tools
used to convince Pharaoh of G-d's might.
The Bais HaLevi applies this to the concept of suffering and repentance. Why
is repentance acceptable when it is brought about through suffering? As we
know, the Jewish exiles are forms of suffering designed to bring about a
turn-around in our behavior, and more importantly, our attitudes. The same
question can be asked. Changing one's behavior through suffering is not a
reflection of a change of heart. It's just a way of avoiding pain. The
attitude remains intact, and when the threat of suffering is removed, the
negative behavior will return.
The answer to this is that we really do want to do G-d's will. Why don't we
do it? It's because we get distracted by other "priorities". In other words,
our desire to act in a way contradictory to G-d's desires is not intrinsic
to us as it was with Pharaoh. It is a consequence of ignorance of the whole
picture; losing the forest for the trees. Troubles tend to be sobering, and
they focus our attention on things with true intrinsic value. We come to
realize that we were not putting the emphasis in life on the correct
priorities. Afterwards, even in the absence of further threat of suffering,
we tend to take life more seriously, and regret the time wasted violating
The analogy to this is of the olive. Hidden within the olive is the oil.
However, the olive must undergo an extremely traumatic, crushing experience
to bring out its best. The same is true with us. Deep within us is the
desire to serve our Creator with fire and enthusiasm. Many times that desire
remains hidden even from ourselves. Sometimes, though, difficult experiences
in life act as a catalyst to bringing out that beautiful potential which is
hidden deep inside. May we all be privileged to discover and fulfill our
true desire to serve G-d under the most pleasant circumstances.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.