The Weekly Sedra – Parashas Bo – Born Free

Rabbi Yossi Kahanov Shliach to Jacksonville, FL

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 7:3

Come to Pharaoh (and warn him) for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may put my miracles in his midst. – Exodus 10:1

The Mishna states, “If a person says, ‘I will sin, and then I will do Teshuvah (repent),’ then he is not granted the opportunity to do Teshuvah” (Yoma 85a). This appears, at first glance, to suggest that the person is denied the free choice of a later Teshuvah.

However, the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (Igeres Hateshuvah ch. 11) that it is still possible for this person to do Teshuvah if, “he pushes himself hard and overcomes his evil inclination,” and then, “his Teshuvah is accepted”.

The same could be argued for Pharaoh, G-d did not take away his free choice; rather, through the evil acts of persecuting the Jewish people he numbed his soul, making it more difficult for him to do Teshuvah. – The Rebbe

The Talmud relates a story about a man by the name of Elisha the son of Abuya, a.k.a Acher, (the other one). This Acher had abandoned the path of righteousness and never repented.

The Talmud relays, that as a reason for never having repented, Acher cited an incident that had occurred to him at a certain point in his wayward life. Acher described how one day he heard a heavenly voice call out: “Repent my wayward children, repent, – all, that is, but for Acher.”

Acher interpreted the heavenly injunction against his atonement to be a punishment for his rebellious ways. Not unlike the wicked Pharaoh, he perceived himself to have forfeited his chance to atone.

Talmudic commentary assert, however, that despite the heavenly call, Acher erred by not repenting. He should not have paid heed to the heavenly voice, for “Nothing stands in the way of repentance, not even the very ban thereof.”

The hardening of Pharaoh and his servants’ hearts – so that they would not be inclined to obey G-d’s command – is a central and recurring theme of this week’s Parsha, Bo, as well as the preceding Parsha, Va’eira. The fairness of this tactic, on the part of G-d, is the prevailing topic of the many Torah commentaries.

Is the tampering and obstruction of man’s ability to do the right thing – so that he might be further punished – fair? Is this G-d’s idea of Heavenly justice? How are we, after all is said and done, to explain the idea of divine tinkering with man’s free choice? To borrow a line from our Patriarch Avraham: “Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?!” If this is not outright unseemly, there is, at the very least, an appearance of injustice.

Free choice is the essential component which justifies the concept of reward and punishment. It would be inappropriate to punish a robot for performing an immoral act which it was programmed to do. Humans are rewarded and punished for their actions because they choose to do good or evil. How could Pharaoh be punished for refusing to comply with G-d’s demands to grant freedom to the Israelites, if G-d Himself “hardened his heart”?

It seems like just about every Biblical commentary has something to say about this astounding phenomenon. The explanations, as can be imagined, run the gamut.

According to Maimonides, there is indeed a point beyond return – a line past which man forfeits his free choice and aptitude to repent. The capacity for atonement according to Maimonides is, evidently, a privilege not a right. When one sins excessively, in a premeditated and egregious manner, he may well abuse the privilege and lose his ability to repent.

Others argue that this cannot be the case: “The gates of atonement are always open, even to the gravest sinner,” they assert.

Nachmanides offers an explanation that is as profound as it is simple. He argues that had G-d refrained from hardening Pharaoh’s heart, he would have been deprived of the ability to make a free and true choice.
According to Nachmanides the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was commensurate with the supernatural events which the Almighty had visited upon him and his nation. According to this opinion, it was precisely for the purpose of maintaining the balance of free choice that the Holy-One was forced to adjust Pharaoh’s inclination.

Had He not tempered Pharaoh’s heart, his repentance would not have been the result of free choice at all. It would rather have been unduly influenced by his exposure to the supernatural phenomena surrounding the Ten Plagues and other miraculous acts preformed by Moshe and Aaron in the name of G-d. According to this interpretation Pharaoh’s free choice has not been taken away from him. If anything it has been restored.
An alternative explanation for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is based on the concept that when a sin involves the public desecration of G-d’s name and honor, personal repentance must take a back seat – overlooked or withheld by G-d – until the damage to His name is repaired and His greatness restored. According to this view, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a result of his public desecration of G-d’s honor by virtue of his rebellious words and actions. It is for this very reason that Pharaoh had been used as the object through which G-d’s awesome power and greatness had been restored.

A more psychologically oriented explanation for the peculiar heart hardening phenomenon is based on a Midrash that states: “The wicked are under the control of their heart, as opposed to their heart being under their control,” i.e., unlike the righteous whose heart is under the control of their mind, the wicked are unable to master the desires of their heart, for their mind has no active control over it.

This Midrashic observation contains deep psychological insight into the human anatomy. The reality of human nature is that the more one performs selfless acts of holiness and virtue, the more he is empowered to control and choose his actions and destiny. On the other hand, the more one succumbs to the temptation of the selfish animal instinct, the less control he tends to retain over his instinctive inclination and dictates.
According to this premise, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is more analogous of a consequence than a punishment. The following statement of our Sages best summarizes this notion: “A Mitzvah begets a Mitzvah, and a transgression begets a transgression. The reward of a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah and the reward of a transgression is a transgression.”

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his magnum opus, Tanya – chapter 17, elaborates on how the non sinner, by virtue of the mind’s innate mastery over the heart, is able – through proper meditation – to develop the necessary emotions, i.e., love and fear of G-d, which result in righteous conduct. This, however, asserts Reb Schneur Zalman, is not the case with regards to the Rasha (transgressor). Due to the dulling and coarsening of his senses the evildoer is unable to influence his emotions and hence his actions.

And yet despite all this, in the following chapters, Rabbi Schneur Zalman goes on to layout a formula in which even the transgressor can tap into an innate reservoir of Divine love and fear – by which he too can master his conduct and destiny.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all this hardening of the heart stuff, is that in the final analysis, everyone, even the ancient Pharaoh, can break out of their trap and return to G-d. Is this not the reason why G-d kept sending Moshe back to admonish Pharaoh? If Pharaoh, whose spiritual nutrition was from the forces of evil, was able to do Teshuvah, then all the more so a Jew – whose spiritual energy is derived from holiness – is never beyond the scope of Teshuvah.

Indeed Chassidic philosophy teaches that however deeply a person has sunk – even if he seems trapped in his own evil – repentance is always possible. It might be more difficult, but it is always possible. We are always free.

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