by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
This week's LifeLine is dedicated in memory of Morty (Menashe) Cohen.
"G-d said to Moshe... I will harden Pharoah's heart, and I will increase my
signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt." [7:1, 3]
At first glance, it seems that Pharoah was denied free choice - and if so,
many ask, how could Pharoah be held liable for his actions? What was his sin?
The Ramban (Nachmanides) and the Seforno both offer the following
explanation (the Ramban actually provides two answers, saying that both are
true). It is clear, they say, that Pharoah did not want to repent. When the
Torah recounts the first five plagues, it does not say that G-d hardened
Pharoah's heart - only that it was hardened, meaning that he did it himself.
If at any time Pharoah had desired repentance, then he certainly would have
been given the opportunity to do so.
Why, then, did G-d harden Pharoah's heart? Because after being struck with
the first five plagues, Pharoah would have been forced to release the
Israelites not because it was G-d's will, but because he was unable to
withstand further punishment. He would have been unable to resist, as his
servants said to him, "do you not yet realize that Egypt is lost?" [10:7]
And this, concludes the Seforno, is not repentance at all.
If last week's Dvar Torah discussed free will as the distinction between
human beings and other creatures, the Seforno this week helps to point out
what - in Jewish philosophy - "free will" really entails. For as one
subscriber quite correctly pointed out, animals do many things only "because
they feel like it," such as playing games. "And there are indications that
cats," continued the writer, "will hunt or not because they feel like it -
as long as they have sufficient food." All of this is true.
The Jewish understanding of free will, on the other hand, is not our ability
to choose between any two random actions. Rather it is the opportunity to
decide for ourselves whether to do good, or bad. My family once owned a cat
that preferred hunting over playing with yarn. I will save you the details;
suffice it to say that it brought an unusual assortment of small trophies
home through the cat door. Now did my father punish the cat? Of course not -
it's "the predatory instinct" that "comes naturally" to all cats in some
degree. But were we to see a child harming an animal, we would say that he
is "being cruel", and must be taught to be kind.
"The heavens and the earth give testimony for Me upon you this day, that
life and death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse, and you
will choose life..." [Dev. 30:19] Even if he had tried to do so, Dr.
Dolittle could not have made this verse meaningful to the many animals he
spoke with in the series of childrens' books. And the verse, according to
Jewish sources, explains why it is that humans alone must have free choice:
in order that G-d be able to reward us, for choosing life.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.