Today we are going to grapple with a fundamental question: Does man have bekhira, free choice?
The short answer is: Of course he does! The Rambam (Maimonides) begins his fifth chapter of his treatise on teshuva, repentance, with the words reshut le-chol adam netuna, “freewill is granted to every individual. If he desires to turn to the good path, he can. Should he wish to turn to the path of evil, likewise the choice is his!”
And so we find in this week’s parasha, where the signs and then the plagues unfold against Pharaoh and against Egypt; one by one, the Torah repeats again and again vayechezak lev Par’o, the heart of Pharaoh was strong; or vayachbeid Par’o et libo, Pharaoh hardened his heart, ve-lo shilach et ha-am, and he didn’t let the people go.
But what happens after the sixth plague of boils? Here we find a turn of phrase that seems to contradict the principle of free choice. What does it say? Va-yechazeik HaShem et lev Par’o. G-D strengthened the heart of Pharaoh!
Question: If G-D hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what free choice does he have?
So the Rambam addresses this question too, and he writes le-fi she-chata atsmo techila, since he began to sin through his own free choice, lefichach chizeik HBH et libo, therefore eventually G-D ‘steps in’ and hardens his heart further. As our Sages say elsewhere: in the way a person wishes to go, he is led!
I want to explore this from a psychological angle, and I don’t believe that I am violating the intent of the Rambam one iota!
Sadly, our generation, more than any previous one, knows all about the scourge of addiction. Whether it is addiction to nicotine, to weed, to alcohol, to gambling, to video games, to porn, it is perhaps the number-one cause of mental and emotional dysfunction.
If I am offered crack having never taken it before, I have absolute bechira, free choice, to say yes or no. But if, G-D forbid, I would say yes and I would have a pleasant experience, then the second time it would be harder to say no. What about the 22nd time? By then, I would probably be well and truly in the throes of addiction to the substance. Do I still have free choice to say yes or no? Theoretically I do; but in practice it would now be superhumanly difficult for me to say no unless I would get outside help to be weaned off my addiction.
One can also become addicted to bad moral choices, to evil choices. We can, of course, become hooked on good choices as well. We wouldn’t call that “addiction”, rather we would call it becoming “habituated” to good and moral and kosher choices. Thank G-D, I have never ever in my adult life been tempted by a leg of ham or a rasher of bacon or by a shrimp cocktail because I’ve spent my entire adult life keeping kosher. Somebody just coming into Jewish observance may be tempted by it, but the more times he or she will resist that temptation, the more she or he will be strengthened until it won’t be a choice any longer, it will be a fait accompli.
Similarly with bad moral choices. A person can become habituated to lashon hara, to speaking in a derogatory or negative way about others – it’s very easy! – at first there will be remorse, or embarrassment, then it will seem to him normal and eventually he’ll say “it’s even a mitsva to show up that shmendrik this way!” – and if he wants to repent, he or she will need to work on themselves thoroughly in order to get to a stage where they can take a deep breath, count to ten and manage to stay shtum when they hear gossip being peddled against a mutual acquaintance.
The Hamas terrorists who murdered, raped, butchered, dismembered and cannibalised Jewish women and children – and men – in such a brutal and inhuman fashion had probably fantasised about doing it many times; and they will want to do it again. It gave them a warped and twisted thrill that they will want to experience again and again – they’ve said so! – and G-D has, in a sense, taken away their free choice as a consequence – in psychological terms, they have become addicted to perverted violence.
So too, Pharaoh – after five plagues where he chose to harden his heart against doing not only the right thing but the sensible thing – after all, his country was being devastated bit by bit, and intellectually Pharaoh knew it – but emotionally because of his growing addiction to evil, he became less and less in control of his own decisions, and so the Torah tells us by the sixth plague va-yechazeik HaShem et lev Par’o, G-D hardened his heart.
We just started a new civil year, 2024. I’ve always said that all Jan 1st means to me is that I put aside my old desk diary and start writing in my new one. But the fact is that on Jan 1st people are encouraged to make new year resolutions – and good resolutions are always a good thing, whenever they’re made. Really we should be making them monthly or even weekly or even every day!
I would like to suggest a resolution that we can all probably relate to, and certainly I do.
The first thing every Jew should do when he or she wakes up is to say Modeh Ani. Hopefully we all do! The second thing many of us do, before or immediately after we’ve washed and dressed, is to check our mobile phones – religiously! And from then on, our iPhone or Samsung or whatever the device of choice becomes our most constant companion, our bosom pal throughout the day! We check for messages how many times an hour? Every ten minutes maybe?
Now I’m the first one to say “thank G-D for the internet!” because without it I wouldn’t be learning Daf Yomi. I would never have had the determination to embark upon a 71/2-year program of a page of Talmud every day which, barukh haShem, I’m now over halfway through. I get a shiur on my What’s App every day and it acts as the galvanising force for me to take a Gemara and learn.
But of course that’s not the only use to which we put our mobile devices. Particarly now, since Oct 7th, many of us have become news addicts – yes we do need to know what’s going on in Israel, but do we need to seek updates every quarter of an hour? Do we have to read every blog, every tweet on social media? Are our Facebook friends real friends? Or is our preoccupation with social media preventing us from waking up and smelling the coffee? If so, maybe we need to get ourselves in check before HBH takes away our free choices as He took away Pharaoh’s choices!
Thank G-D, I’m not into Facebook, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, but I do spend much too much time surfing outlets for news tidbits which I could really do without knowing. And everyone here will know in which way their kinship with their device can be healthier.
When we peruse the news on whatever site we choose, let’s try to seek out the good news, Better still let’s create good news ourselves!
Above all, let’s ensure that free choice remains firmly in our hands in whatever we do, because, to adopt the famous saying, if we abuse it we lose it!