Friday, January 7, 2011

Pharoh's Free Will

There are so many good topics to discuss in this week's Parsha of Bo. However, I would like to focus on the first verse of this week's parsha. It states (Shemos 10:1)

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ.1 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them;

There are so many things going on here that it is hard to decide where to begin. I guess that the order of the verse is a good place to start. Why does G-D have to tell Moshe to go to Pharoh BECAUSE of anything? Why does G-D have to justify Himself to Moshe? Furthermore, why does G-D have to harden the heart of Pharoh and his servants? Not to mention, how can G-D take away someone's free will just to prove a point?

It seems to me that all of these questions can be answered in a single idea. First, let me explain an argument between the Rambam and the Ralbag. These great Torah scholars argue about one of the most basic philosophical concepts, free will and G-D's knowledge. The question is "How can G-D know what I am about to do yet my choice to do that action that is known to G-D is my own choice?" The Rambam gives a very simple answer in "The Guide for the Perplexed." He tells us, basically, that just because G-D knows you will do a certain action does not mean that it was not your choice. The Rambam basically defines free will as you coming to the conclusion yourself and G-D's knowledge that you will perform that action is irrelevant. However, the Ralbag answers the question much differently. He believes that G-D's knowledge that you will perform a certain action takes away the free will choice of that action. Therefore, the Ralbag explains that G-D's knowledge of human actions only encompasses general actions and not specific actions. Meaning, G-D knows what happens to a nation and understands human nature. This allows G-D to understand what humans are doing, but not to know what they will do in the future. The Ralbag is complicated and, in order to fully understand his idea, one must read his ideas in depth in the Wars of the Lord (Milchamus Hashem).

Moshe thought that talking to Pharoh was fruitless and pointless. However, G-D explained to Moshe here that there is a reason why Pharoh refuses to send out the Jews, because his heart and the heart of his officers have been hardened. Why? In order that G-D could perform the ten plagues. The Rambam would explain this verse in a somewhat traditional way. G-D knew that Pharoh would continue to reject any plea from Moshe, because G-D knows the future beyond a shadow of a doubt. This also allowed G-D to  KNOW that all ten plagues would be performed. However, in order to make Pharoh's future into this reality, G-D had to harden Pharoh's heart and the heart of his servants, because otherwise they would not have rejected Moshe's plea. "What about free choice?" G-D had already given enough opportunity to Pharoh to repent. At this point G-D wanted to reveal his amazing power to all of creation through the conduit of Pharoh. Pharoh NO LONGER HAD FREE WILL.

The Ralbag, I think, would explain this episode a little different and in a very innovative way. The Ralbag would tell us that G-D was telling Moshe that Pharoh is a stubborn man, because G-D created him that way. "I [created him] with a heavy heart and [I created] his servants [with a heavy heart] in order that I can perform my miracles." That is what G-D was telling Moshe, that even though any conversation with Pharoh is pointless, having a conversation must be done. G-D knew the nature of Pharoh and his servants. G-D did not know the specific acts of Pharoh's future, but he knew Pharoh's inherent genetically transcribed nature. Just like a pedophile or a rapist will not stop, so too Pharoh will not stop. In all of these situations their inherent nature is to follow their animalistic desires.

According to the Rambam we would have to say that G-D removed Pharoh's free will. However, the Ralbag allows us to see that Pharoh had free will, but some people are inherently evil. Their inherent nature is wicked and they do not care to overcome their deficiencies. This is an important lesson for several reasons. I was listening to the radio and I heard about this 16 year old boy who tried to kill someone. He did not succeed and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. However, the supreme court ruled that a person under the age of 18 can not be given a life sentence for a non-lethal crime. The lawyers are going to be arguing about it. This case gave me pause. Why shouldn't someone who is under 18 be given a life sentence? Can you rehabilitate someone under the age of 18 better than over? Personally, I believe that there are two aspects to who a person is, their nature and their nurture. The nature of a person is their inherent drive. Some people are born with an animalistic desire to kill and others are not. On the other hand, some people are born in neighborhood where they are taught it is ok to kill those that you hate, while others are raised in neighborhoods where that is unacceptable. The mixture between an inherent drive to kill and a perception that it is ok to kill is very dangerous.

While a person is still young and impressionable, that is when their nurture can be altered. A person that is taught it is ok to kill can still be taught that killing is unacceptable, hence they should not be permanently punished, but rehabilitated. However, after a certain point, a person is set in their ideals and thoughts, that person can no longer be rehabilitated. Pharoh and his officers where beyond the point of being rehabilitated. Moshe would never be able to convince Pharoh to let the Jewish people go. This is why G-D knew that He would be able to perform all the ten plagues on Egypt, because Pharoh was set in his evil ways.

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