Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?

According to the simple meaning of the text, it seems like God took away Pharaoh's free will - how could He do such a thing? In this video, we explores the different words used by the Torah, kaved and chazek; Rabbi Fohrman argues that the precise language shows that God allows Pharaoh to pursue his vision, even if the vision is a defiance of God.


Parshat Va’era


This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Va’era.

In this week’s Parsha we have a basic theological conundrum. We all know that Pharaoh gets hit with a plague and then he agrees to let the Jews go and then he retracts his agreement. And when he retracts his agreement, he hardens his heart and yet the Torah begins in the first few plagues with Pharaoh changing his mind, but then transitions to a place where it seems that God changes Pharaoh’s mind for him. And of course the theological conundrum is: What happens to Pharaoh’s free will? I thought it’s a fundamental principle of Jewish thought of that God doesn’t deprive humans of free will. I want to highlight an approach taken by the Sforno and elaborate the implications of that approach with you.

The Sforno argues that, in fact, God never deprived Pharaoh of free will. If anything, he enhanced Pharaoh’s free will. Now how could that be? How could God harden Pharaoh’s heart as a way of enhancing his free will? Let’s try to figure it out.

It turns out that the Torah uses two different words to describe the changing of Pharaoh’s mind. “Kibud ha-lev,” and “chizuk ha-lev.” How do you translate those? What two different processes are happening here? What do the words mean? “Kabed” means to harden, to become heavy, the hard heart. Chazak, of course, means strong, so “chizuk ha-lev” would mean to strengthen, strengthen the heart. You’ll notice immediately that one has a positive connotation and one has a negative connotation. Nobody wants to have a hard heart or a heavy heart, but everyone would want to have a strong heart. So if we would translate the meaning of these words you might say that ‘kibud ha-lev,’ hardness of heart, actually means to be stubborn, whereas ‘chizuk ha-lev,’ strength of heart, is something we might describe as courage. So one of the things you need to look at as you through the plagues is: which word is being used in any given plague? When Pharaoh changed his mind, is he exhibiting a kind of ‘chizuk ha-lev,’ a kind of courage, or is he exhibiting a kind of ‘kibud ha-lev,’ a kind of stubbornness.

Now of course, in any given plague, not only do you get the differences between the word ‘kibud ha-lev’ and ‘chizuk ha-lev,’ you also get the difference between who is doing the changing of mind. Is Pharaoh changing his own mind or is God changing Pharaoh’s mind? So you can set this up kind of as a matrix. In any given plague, there is one of four possibilities.

On your Y axis, you might list the actors. Is God the one doing this or is Pharaoh the one doing i? And on the X axis, going across, you might ask: what is being done? Are we talking about ‘kibud ha-lev’ on the one hand, or are we talking about ‘chizuk ha-lev,’ on the other hand? And just put a check box in the quadrant that applies for each plague.

So, I encourage you to take some time and actually go through the Parsha for each plague and try to check off which of these four quadrants you think is applicable. If it is “vayachbed Par’oh et-libo,” so it means that Pharaoh is the actor, it means what he is doing is making himself stubborn, so you check off that one of the four boxes and you can do this for each of the plagues and the conclusions I think you’ll find are intriguing indeed. If you would like to see my conclusions about all this, I encourage you to check out the course on AlephBeta entitled: The Exodus from Egypt: What Does it Means to be Chosen? You can find it in our holiday section and I go through each of these plagues in detail and try to show exactly what I think is happening in each.

In the meantime, let me just get to the essence of the Sforno’s idea. If you take the Sforno’s idea that Pharaoh’s free will is actually being enhanced, the way that we actually get there is that God never actually makes Pharaoh stubborn. The only thing God would ever do is lend Pharaoh more courage to continue the fight. If I give you courage to pursue your vision, I am enhancing your free will. If you actually look carefully throughout our entire Parsha, you will never, ever find God “machbid” Pharaoh's heart; God will never harden Pharaoh’s heart. The only thing he will do is that he will “machzik” Pharaoh’s heart. What that seems to mean is that there is a moment where Pharaoh’s courage would fail him, but God gives him the courage to be able to continue to pursue his vision

What is that vision? Ironically, that vision is defiance of God. Think of this, God gives the courage to be able to defy him. Had God not lent Pharaoh courage at that moment, Pharaoh would have given in, not because he would have relinquished his vision of wanting to defy God, not because he would have changed his theological mindset but simply because he failed, he had a lack of courage, he wasn’t strong enough to continue.

God says “no, no, I am going to give you the strength to continue. I don’t want you to give in to me out of lack of strength, I want you to give into to me because you change your vision. I don’t want you to be beaten into submission; I want you to change your agenda.”  The ten plagues were a kind of education. An education of what it means for there to be a One God in this world. The One God is not looking to beat even his enemies into submission.

The hope of the ten plagues is that it’s a kind of education process, first for Egypt, but through Egypt for the entire world. You ever wonder why there needed to be ten plagues? Why bother with ten plagues? You couldn’t have gotten the Jews to go free a lot easier than that? All the power of the Universe at your disposal, and it’s going to take you ten plagues to get the Jews free? I mean just freeze the Egyptians in place, load the Jews onto a Magic Carpet and take them to the land of Israel

No. There is another agenda of the ten plagues—an educational agenda. Control over all aspects of nature, who would have that?

In a polytheistic world, a world governed by many, many different gods, no one god holds the key to all of these forces. That only exists if there is a Creator God, one force in charge of it all. Gradually, the ten plagues revealed this to be true. Pharaoh and Egypt need to see that. But what if they give in for the wrong reasons? What if the plagues are simply too powerful to withstand first? I’ll encourage you until you realize the truth. This God that you are battling is not just a powerful polytheistic god. He is the One God, He is the Creator. When you realize that—when you change your vision—the battle is over.

It turns out that there is a point where Pharaoh actually gets that truth, understands it and, strangely, it’s not after the tenth plague; it’s after the seventh one. It’s after barad. In barad, there is perhaps the greatest display of God’s oneness that could possibly exist. Hail rains down on Egypt. But the hail is a very special kind of hail. It’s fire and ice together. It’s fire encapsulated within the ice. If it was regular hail, you could say the ice god doesn’t like Egypt. If fire was raining down from heaven, you could say the sun god, the fire god, doesn’t like Egypt. An alliance between the fire god and the ice god? They don’t get along. Only the Creator can make peace between fire and ice. And in the wake of the plague of hail, Pharaoh’s response? “HaShem ha-tzadik v’ani v’ammi ha-reshaim,” God is the righteous one, me and my people have been wicked.

Until now, Pharaoh has never talked about the conflict between him and God in those terms. There’s no sense that you are in the right and I am in the wrong. Morality only comes into the picture when you are defying your Creator. It’s not right to defy your Creator. Pharaoh gets it in the seventh plague. The plague leading right up to that, Pharaoh had also given in, he had been crushed, by the plague of Shchen.

His astrologers, who he had counted on for advice, they couldn’t even stand the plague of boils, it afflicted them so greatly. That last plague, “vayechazek HaShem et-lev Par’oh,” God gave Pharaoh the strength to continue, the strength to pursue his vision so that he could yet fight on. The interesting thing is that that’s not the end of the plagues, the plagues continue. Why isn’t it over then? It should be over then! It’s done! Pharaoh recognized the truth! Let the Jews go! Why are there three more plagues? We will talk about that when we come back next week.

Hi folks! This is Rabbi David Fohrman and it is that time of year! It’s year-end tax-deductible donation time. If you have watched our videos over the course of this year and they have meant something to you, if they have brought something positive to your life, I ask you to take a look at a little blue banner at the top of our screen. It says “Make your year-end contribution to AlpheBeta here.” Click that banner. It is easy for you to ignore that banner. I plead with you not to ignore it. Become our partner, help support what we do here. Help bring this kind of Torah to you, to your children, to your friends, to kids in high school across the world. We count on your donations to help make that happen. Contribute what you can. I will be incredibly grateful as will as our team of starving, but wonderfully talented, video editors. I am looking to a wonderful year of learning and exploring together with you. Join us. This is Rabbi David Fohrman.

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