The biblical story of the Exodus is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it also questions a basic Jewish belief and has kept philosophers up at night for 2,000 years.
The biblical story of the Exodus, now being told on Saturday mornings in synagogues everywhere, is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. It has a villain (Pharaoh); a reluctant hero (Moses); beautiful heroines ready to risk all for love (Yocheved, Miriam, Ziporah); an epic battle in which good triumphs over evil (at the “Red Sea”) and a cast of at least 600,000. It also provides a moral enigma that challenges a basic Jewish belief and has kept philosophers up at night for 2,000 years.
As the Torah tells it, Pharaoh was not simply a willful villain. He was a tool of God whose stubborn refusal to “Let my People go” was the pretext for a show of divine might intended to inspire generations of humanity. Even after Pharaoh was ready to free the Jews in order to stop being punished, God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” allowing the wondrous series of plagues to continue.
But how is that possible? Is not Judaism based on a principle of free will? Are we not assured that God allows us to choose between Good and Evil? Are we not judged on that choice? How could God act so unjustly as to punish Pharaoh (and all of Egypt) for actions that resulted from a divine “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart, not of free will?
Classical commentaries to the Torah approach these questions with three themes. The first, favored by the 11th-century commentary of Rashi, is that, indeed, after repeatedly ignoring Moses’ pleas to show mercy to the Jews, Pharaoh was stripped of his free will. This, Rashi explains, is the punishment for wickedness. A person who, like Pharaoh, persists in a wicked act is punished by losing the ability to choose otherwise and used by God as an example of what happens to those who persist in ignoring God’s will.
A second approach, favored by Nachmanides in the 14th century, explains that by “hardening his heart,” God was giving Pharaoh the strength of character to overcome the pain of his punishment and do that which he really wanted to do: continue to enslave the Jews. Rather than removing Pharaoh’s free will, God was giving him the strength to act on it.
Maimonides, writing in the 13th century, provides a third approach. The statement that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is not referring to an act of God directed against Pharaoh. Rather, it is a general description of human nature as God created it back “In the Beginning.” Human beings since Adam and Eve have been programmed so that the patterns of behavior that we set for ourselves become habitual. Acts of kindness and compassion habituate us to being kind and compassionate. The more kindness we practice, the kinder we become. Acts of cruelty such as those inflicted by Pharaoh on his Jewish slaves also become habitual. Over time, such acts form a pattern of behavior that is difficult to reverse. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened not through divine intervention but by his own nature, given by God to Adam and Eve and passed down through the generations.
As understood by Maimonides, the Torah teaches that our acts have consequences. The choice to act with cruelty or indifference, as individuals or as a society, hardens our hearts to human suffering and leads to a harsh society that is devoid of kindness. The choice to act with compassion strengthens our compassionate nature and helps us build a society that provides justice and sustenance for all. What implications this understanding might have for both our personal choices and our governments’ policies could make for an interesting Shabbos table conversation.
Rabbi Howard Alpert is the CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.