Pharaoh’s heart and free will — a contradiction?


Our sidra for this week, Va-era, (Exodus 6:2-9:35) presents us with an apparent conflict between free will and a person’s ability to change. God announces to Moses that He will demonstrate His power before Pharaoh by means of extraordinary events — plagues. And then He announces to Moses: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”

The intention is clear: Pharaoh will not be able to respond to the disasters that will befall his nation by letting the Israelites go.


Even if the king of Egypt wants to prevent further destruction to his land by releasing the Israelites, he cannot. God will not let him. In this case, Pharaoh has no free will. His fate has been determined.

The sages of our tradition were quite familiar with the broad outlines of Greek logic, especially when it conflicted with their understanding of the divine. According to the Classical Greek philosophers, for God to be God, it was understood that the deity had to be, among other things, omnipotent — all powerful — and omniscient — all knowing.

But, omniscience logically conflicts with free will.

If God knows everything that is going to happen, before it happens, then human beings do not have the ability to make choices or change. All was determined in the mind of the divine.

The concept of free will is a foundational principle of most systems of Judaism. Despite our fondness at weddings for the idea that some things in life are divinely meant to be (that is, beshert), our tradition has held fast to the idea that human beings have free will.

From the story of the Garden of Eden to the giving of the Ten Commandments, free will is assumed.

Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. God told them not to, but they do so anyway.

Cain is in a murderous rage against his brother Able. God recognizes the danger of such anger. “Sin is a crouching demon at your door, but you can overcome it.” Cain has within him the free will to just walk away.

The Israelites are given divine commandments, precisely because they have free will. If they cannot make choices in their lives, commandments and rules are superfluous.

Our sages were unwilling to let go of God’s omniscience. “Rabbi Akiba said: ‘All is foreseen, yet free will is given.'” (Pirke Avot 3:19).

If free will was a gift from God, it meant that the gift could be given without diminishing the power of the giver. To our sages, God knew what Adam and Eve, Cain and the Israelites were going to do. But for history to move forward, free will and human choices had to be present.

So what about Pharaoh? If free will is a divine gift, there is nothing in the logical world of the philosophers that prevents the giver from withdrawing the gift.

In the case of our Torah portion, Pharaoh’s free will is negated for a higher purpose. There are some who would say that Pharaoh had forfeited his free will by his previous acts of cruelty.

Did God really harden Pharaoh’s heart or did Pharaoh follow the dark path he had established for himself? The further we move from the path of justice, the harder it is to find the way back.

Rabbi Mark Shook is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Temple Israel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.