Parshat Vaera - 5762
"I Will Harden the Heart of Pharaoh" (Shemot 7:3)
"Everything is Foreseen, but Permission is Granted" (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
Rabbi Akiva in
Pirkei Avot 3:19 states a fundamental assumption of Judaism; namely, that two "apparently" contradictory ideas are both true. First, that HaShem has foreknowledge of events; that is, He "knows" what will happen in the future. Second, that human beings have freedom of choice.
The RAMBAM, in Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 5, Halachah 1, restates the Principle of "Bechirah Chofshit," Freedom of Choice: "Permission is granted to every human being; if he wishes to incline himself to the way of goodness, and to be righteous, the permission to do so is in his hand. But if he wishes to incline himself to the way of evil, and to be wicked, he is granted the permission to do so..."
At first glance, one of the ideas stated in the first paragraph seems to preclude the other. If HaShem knew how Avraham would respond to the challenge of the
Akeidah, in what manner was it a free test? In the context of Sefer Shemot, if HaShem says, "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh," where is the fairness to Pharaoh that allows the Judge of the World to punish him and his nation severely, as he and they were by the Ten Plagues and by the Splitting of the Yam Suf, only to bring it crashing down on their heads?
The basic answer to the question is stated, but not explained, because it could not possibly be explained by a human being, by the RAMBAM. In Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 5, Halachah 5, the RAMBAM writes, "Lest you say, 'Does not the Holy One, Blessed is He, know everything that will be, and before a moment of decision actually occurs, He knows that a person will decide to be righteous or wicked, or does He not know? If He knows that the person will be righteous, it must be impossible that he not be righteous! But if He knows that the person will be righteous, and it is possible that the person be wicked, then HaShem did not know the matter in advance with certainty!"
The RAMBAM answers as follows (Teshuvah, 5:5): "You should know that the answer to this question is longer than the land, and wider than the sea...but you must know and understand the principle that I will now state: We already explained in the second chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not know something with a knowledge that is separate from Himself, as human beings, regarding whom it is true that they and their knowledge are separate. But in His case, He, May His Name be Exalted, and His Knowledge, are One - and the human mind cannot conceive this clearly. And just as it is beyond human capability to conceive the Essence of the Creator, as it says (Shemot 33:20), 'No human can see Me and remain alive,' so is it impossible to conceive the Mind of the Creator. This is what is meant by the Prophet (Yeshayahu 55:8) when he said, 'For your thoughts are not like My Thoughts ..." And therefore, there is no possibility for us to understand how HaShem Knows all of His Creations and their deeds intimately, but we know without doubt that the deeds of a human being are in His hands, and the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not pull him, or decree that he should act on a certain way..."
With regard to Pharaoh, there are two basic approaches: According to the RAMBAM, the behavior of Pharaoh and the Egyptians towards the Jewish People was so awful, that an aspect of the punishment for their earlier deeds was in fact to withhold from them the ability to repent; to remove from them their "bechirah chofshit," freedom of choice. According to
RASHI and the RAMBAN, with respect to the first five of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh retained full freedom of choice, and chose to defy G-d. With regard to the last five, his freedom of choice was suspended only in the sense of a "painkiller;" that allowed him to withstand the ordeal of the Plagues, and hold "true" to his chosen course of defiance of G-d.
On a more down-to-earth level, we know intuitively that we are making significant decisions regarding our lives and the lives of others. Parents wish to bring up their child as a decent human being, but they know that wishing is not enough. They will have to provide their child with examples of moral living, and the child will have to internalize those lessons, to some extent, on his or her own. A teacher or a principal in a school sees in their mind's eye the image of each student as a graduate, but each teacher, and especially each student will have to work very hard to advance from level to level to reach the stage of graduation. A scientist knows that nature will not yield her secrets without total dedication on his or her part to uncovering them and then, if he is astute, he realizes that he or she must rely on insight granted from HaShem. Someone trying to analyze and understand a Torah idea, must devote oneself totally, with much yegiah, effort, before he can hope for a more-or-less complete understanding of the idea, and possibly come up with a chidush, a new insight, with the help of HaShem.
Speaking crudely, we should probably "let HasHem do His Thing," while we "do our thing," and hope that by exercising our "bechirah chofshit" properly, we will succeed in bringing ourselves closer to our Creator.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel