Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha



Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The F*-WORD…[F _ _ _ _]…Questions, Conflicts & Connection of FAITH



VaEra—Exodus 9:1-35






In light of Pharaoh’s heart-hardening, HOW does free-will work?

WHAT does God’s role in the free-will process say about our faith?






v.12   But Adonai hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he did not hear them, just as Adonai had said to Moses.

SH’MOT RABBAH“For I have hardened his heart…” [10:1]   Said R’ Yochanan: This provides an opening for the

heretics to say: Pharaoh was not allowed by God to do teshuvah—to repent.

RAMBAN…If “the Lord hardens Pharoah’s heart…” then what was his great crime?

SARNA… The motif of Pharaoh’s heart-hardening runs through the entire exodus story.  It appears exactly 20 times:

half of the references to an essential attribute of man’s character, and half attributed to divine causality.  In the biblical conception…regarded as the seat of the intellectual, moral and spiritual life of the individual, this organ is the

determinant of behavior.  The “hardening” thus expresses a state of arrogant moral degeneracy…Pharaoh’s personal culpability is beyond question.

R’ S.R. HIRSCH… The Torah uses three different terms to describe the hardening process.  The first is “kasha

[ And I will “ak’sheh” harden Pharaoh’s heart, 7:3] meaning to let everything pass without making any impression…The second

term is “kaved[ “va-yich’bad et lev–Yet pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, 9:7]  meaning heavy, where one receives impressions but they have little impact.  Finally, Torah uses the term “chazak[va-y’chazek Adonai et lev paro—But Adonai stiffened Pharaoh’s

heart, 9:12] meaning firm, consciously opposing—standing firm against submission….Pharaoh’s coldness,  his insensibility was a process of hardening.

TANCHUMA… The first five plagues are accompanied by the passive formulation: “then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,”

for after they came upon him he refused to let the people go.  Accordingly,  the Holy One said, ‘Henceforth, even if he should now want to let them go, I will not let him.’  So now, and for the next five plagues the text adds, “and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”

CASSUTTO… In early Hebrew idiom, it was customary to attribute every phenomenon to the direct action of God…Every happening has a number of causes, and these causes, in turn, have other causes…and the cause of all causes was the will of God.  Now the philosopher examines the complex chain of causation, whereas the ordinary person jumps from the last effect to the first cause. Consequently, in the final analysis, “and the Lord hardened…” and “Pharaoh’s heart hardened” are interchangeable….

RAMBAM…There are many passages in Torah which seem to contradict the principle of free-will, and many have been misled….When a man sins of his own free-will, he is punished…sometimes in this world, sometimes in the hereafter…

And the same as man’s sin is of his own free prompting, so is his repentance.  But it may sometimes happen that man’s offense is so grave that he is penalized by not being able to turn…One sins of his own free-will until he forfeits the opportunity of choosing altogether. [The Guide, 2:21]

v.27  Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses & Aaron saying to them, “I stand guilty this time; Adonai is the right one and I am wrong…

R’ Y. ALBO… The wicked man becomes pious and returns to the Lord when the blow falls, “I have sinned this time”…Because such

a situation is of compulsion and not free will, the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart…to eradicate the cowing effects of the plague.

Only then could it be demonstrated whether his repentance was freely motivated.

R’ E. MUNK…Pharaoh’s ignorance of the Lord contributed to his heart-hardening.  After suffering through 7 plagues he was finally ready to recognize the error of his ways, proclaiming, “Adonai HaTsadik.”  Still, it took another 3 plagues before he was willing to obey…

v.34-35  But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder ceased, he became stubborn…And Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, as God had told Moses.

S’FORNO… The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was in danger of eroding, so God strengthened his resolve to withstand… Literally, God “strengthened his heart,”[v.35] fortifying his resistance to enable him to endure the plagues…All this is for the purpose of permitting Pharaoh to repent voluntarily… Had Pharaoh wished to submit to God and sincerely repent, nothing would have stood in his way. 

DRESKIN….The Rambam teaches us that whatever it may look like God is doing, never is the principle of free-will violated.  However, the more a person persists in traveling along the path he or she has chosen, the harder it will become to leave that path—even though freedom of choice has not been withdrawn…..The choice remains—the ability to choose does not…Pharaoh became so wrapped up in his own pride and desire to put these people in their place, he became numb to the pain inflicted on his own people, his own family….The hardening of heart is now ascribed to God in order to demonstrate that rational choice was no longer in Pharaoh’s hands.  He reached the point of no return. He was out of control.



R’ Harold KUSHNER…

The verse raises major theological problems: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” [7:3] If Pharaoh is foreordained to reject Moses’ plea, if God will arrange for the confrontation to continue, how can Pharaoh be held responsible for his actions?  MOSHE GREENBERG responds: Although ‘hardening of the heart’ seems deterministic, events flow naturally from the ambitions of a human being—Pharaoh—who is seized with the delusion of self-sufficiency.  While events unfold under the providence of God,  their unfolding is always according to the motives of the human beings through whom God’s will is done without their realizing it…Pharaoh conducted himself in conformity with his own Godless view and his sense of status…Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God’s will…”

RAMBAM writes: “Sometimes a man’s offense is so grave that he forecloses the possibility of repentance.  At first Pharaoh sinned repeatedly of his own free will, until he forfeited the capacity to choose to repent.”…So ERICH FROMM has written: “Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil—choosing evil.  It hardens to a point where change is no longer possible.  The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes…until the freedom of that choice is no longer with him.”  God has structured the human heart in such a way that Pharaoh prevents himself from changing.                        [Etz Hayim, Torah & Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, pg 356]

Prof Ken SEESKIN… 

                  MAIMONIDES believed—through his defense of Creation as over against the Aristotelian argument that change [and therefore free will] is incompatible with the conception of a perfect being—that God has free will.  If God has free will and is responsible for the universe, He can endow humans with free will as well. 

                  It is but a short step from this conclusion to the notion of a God who issues commandments.  “Though shalts” or “though shalt nots” would be pointless unless the recipients were free to accept or reject them.  One does not give commandments to inanimate objects or lowly forms of animal life.  But neither would it make sense to proclaim commandments in a universe ruled by cosmic determinism.  Why tell human beings its right to do this and wrong to do that if they do not have the ability to redirect the course of their actions?  In rejecting the determinism of medieval Aristotelianism, Maimonides does more than support a particular view of God.

                  He opens the door to free will in the universe; in particular, he lays the foundation for ideas like commandment, sin, repentance and redemption—ideas without which Judaism would be unintelligible. 

                  When Maimonides says that the Aristotelian Theory destroys the foundation of the Law [Guide, 2:25]  what he means is that determinism destroys the basis on which One Being [God] can reasonably exhort another being [humans] to make the world a better place by the choices we make…

                                                                        [A Guide For Today’s Perplexed, Seeskin, Behrman House,  1991; pgs 44-47, 51-54]














The repeated phrase, “lo shamah–he(Pharaoh)  did not listen…”

has a strange, paradoxical effect. On the one hand, Pharaoh repeatedly blocks out God’s message,

hardening himself, making himself incapable of responding, yielding to a knowledge that would diminish his beleaguered self.  This is the most plausible understanding of the last five plagues, “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”…He put himself beyond the possibility of change, imprisoned within the world of his own critical choices…On the other hand, the repeated reminder that God has predicted this process evokes an

irrational sense that God is behind Pharaoh’s not-listening…Unhearing, unspeaking, sealed, impenetrable, Pharaoh represents a powerful longing…I am suggesting that Pharaoh becomes a demonic expression

of the human desire to be unchanging and invulnerable, like God…The nuances are subtle, indeed, largely undefined. In Pharaoh’s case, not-listening becomes a fatal reflex, closing him to vulnerability and growth…

The process by which he moves from hardening his own heart to God’s hardening is essentially a mysterious one.  A stamina of endurance possesses Pharaoh…as he increasingly strikes the reader with a kind of

appalled fascination, compulsively resisting the bombardment that should have defeated him.  I would

suggest that the sixth plague represents the turning point, where God’s role in Pharaoh’s resistance begins. 

At this juncture, the expression “he did not listen” is used for the last time…After this point, when the last

vestige of rationalization has disappeared, Pharaoh has only the mysterious momentum of his own impulses

to drive him…There is no more refusal…What remains is a kind of autism, almost pitiable in its irrationality.  The change happens gradually.  At the climax, when only God’s hardening can account for his stubbornness…

a kind of spiritual rigor mortis sets in… “God made his heart impenetrable” serving to underline the mystery at
the heart of human self-destruction.                            [The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, pgs 104-105]  



Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart and thereby deprive him of any moral culpability for his obduracy?  The answer, I am convinced, has more to do with the Jews than with Pharaoh alone….Indeed, before the first plague, Israel’s heart was frozen hard by the bitterness of their slavery. 

Each successive plague seems to have an incremental effect on Pharaoh and on the Children of Israel. 

One heart they harden, the other hearts they lighten with hope…The rate at which Pharaoh’s heart

becomes sclerotic is precisely the rate at which Israel’s heart begins to lighten.  Pharaoh does not lose

his freedom, he merely lives out the consequences of his own ambition…

This is the lesson: you refuse to know anything of the sacred beyond yourself…

You decide to call yourself a god, go ahead!  But it will make your world desolate and turn your heart

to stone…And this is the other lesson:  If you are willing to consider that your present slavery is of

your own choice, and that there is a Holy One beyond the servitude who wants only that you be free,

then even the heaviest heart can soar like a bird on eagle’s wings…


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