Parashat Va-Era: Free Will, A Precious, But Limited, Resource

Hashem tells Moshe more than once that He is going to harden or strengthen Paroh’s heart. Commentators took varied approaches to what Hashem was doing to Paroh, each of which teach us about our own free will, how much we have, how we can lose it, how we can conserve or protect it.

R. Saadya Gaon: Hashem Never Removes Free Will

In Emunot ve-De’ot, the fourth section, R. Saadya adamantly defended the inalienable right to freewill, but his alternative shows ways we can have trouble exercising that freewill.  He was bothered by Yeshayahu 6;10, which speaks of fattening the Jews’ hearts so that they will not be able to respond to calls for repentance.

He reads it to mean Hashem will bring distractions that make it difficult to focus on repenting.  His examples are war and the like (famine, pestilence, plague), which can take up so much of our mental, psychological, and even physical energy we don’t have the space to think about more important issues.

He reads the verses that speak of hardening someone’s heart as meaning only that Hashem gave them the fortitude to live through all the disasters coming upon them. Paroh (and Sichon) always wanted to do what they did, but their troubles would have killed them without Hashem’s helping them bear what was happening.

His defense of freewill comes at a cost. It doesn’t seem fully fair to be kept away from repentance by force of circumstance, even if our theoretical freewill is intact.  Similarly, had Paroh died early on in the plagues—from the stress of seeing his country ravaged—he wouldn’t have sinned anymore. It is true that he wanted to commit these sins, in R. Saadya’s reading, but it’s also true that Hashem brought about an unnatural circumstance to let him sin more. It might be free will, but it’s not that much more “cricket” than Rambam’s version.

Rambam: We Can Forfeit Our Freewill

In Hilchot Teshuvah 6;3, Rambam takes the view that people can sin so greatly as to lose their right to freewill.  Where Hashem hardened Paroh’s heart, his refusal to listen was not a new sin, it was him playing out what Hashem wanted him to.

If so, why send Moshe to announce each plague and call for Paroh to release the people?  Rambam answers that it was to demonstrate the possibility that we can lose our freewill, find ourselves making our lives worse, despite being warned about it, with no way to stop themselves.

Rambam can make sense psychologically, even if we’re not sure of the metaphysics. Some people follow a destructive path for so long that they seem literally unable to stop themselves.  One easy example is addiction of various sorts; without saying the actions are sins necessarily, it does give us a real-life example of loss of freewill.

It’s not clear this has to be all or nothing, either. Did Paroh have freewill outside of his interactions with Moshe and Aharon? I would think he did, and I would think Rambam could see any of us losing our free will on some issues and not others.  A spur to remember how much we value our freedom, and to do all we can to preserve it.

Radak: Closing the Ways of Repentance

Radak says people can sin so greatly as to have the ways of repentance prevented. What’s not clear is whether he means to agree with Rambam, or come closer to the position of R. Saadya.  Hashem doesn’t take away the sinner’s freewill, He removes the usual opportunities to be stimulated to repentance. (R. Saadya spoke about being actively distracted from repentance).

Where it comes closer to Rambam, it seems to me, is that it’s only true for sinners of a certain level, in Radak’s view.  More casual or ordinary sinners, even if their internal drive to repentance isn’t strong, will find themselves aided on their way.  It is this assistance that more serious sinners—such as Paroh, Sichon, and Eli’s sons—lose.

Abarbanel: Luring Us to Be Ourselves

Abarbanel disagrees with this whole line of reasoning, for reasons similar to R. Saadya, a fundamental belief that Hashem does not abrogate free will.  But his explanation for the hardening of Paroh’s heart seems almost worse. He suggests that Hashem had the Jews maneuver themselves into a place where no other nations could assist them and the only way out was through the Sea.

That was intended so that Paroh would be encouraged to chase them, to see this as his opportunity to avenge himself.  It was Paroh’s interest in chasing them, but Hashem made it possible for him to do so.  In the plagues in Egypt, too, Hashem allowed Paroh to forget past plagues, or find an explanation for them, that would then not prevent him from doing what he really wanted, keeping the Jews in slavery.

Abarbanel is noticing that we’re always affected by our framework, even if our freewill is intact. I think most of us would not be thrilled to have to worry that Hashem might decide to increase our difficulty at avoiding sin, rather than helping us to avoid it, as Torat Hayyim notes.

Torat Hayyim: Is Withholding Help the Same as Denying Free Will?

R. Abraham Hayyim ben R. Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, the early 17th century author of Torat Hayyim, notes a Talmudic dictum, that our baser instincts try to rule over us every day.  Resh Lakish (Sukkah 52a, or R. Shimon b. Levi, Kiddushin 30b) says that only Divine assistance lets us overcome even as much as we do.

For Torat Hayyim, real freewill, absolute freedom to make the choices we want is a danger, not a positive. Left to our own devices, we’d make more bad choices than good. Hashem does us a favor, daily, by helping our good sides win. (Much of government legislation also assumes we do not handle our lives well on our own, and that’s true on both sides of the political aisle.  The debate is only about where we need governmental involvement, whether in financial or moral issues.)

Shelah: Acclimatizing to Sin

Shelah says that we should be careful to repent sooner rather than later, since sin can become entrenched and we’ll lose our freewill, as with Paroh and Sichon.  Rambam seemed to think only the seriousness of sin incurs a loss of freewill, but Shelah implies even just its becoming entrenched can do that.

It reminds me of R. Huna’s comment, Yoma 86b, that once a person sins three times, it becomes like it’s permissible.  R. Huna can be understood psychologically, that once we become accustomed to a certain course of action, we stop weighing it each time we do it.  Shelah could be saying that we then lose our freewill towards that sin, to some extent.  We can’t resist it as easily as we once could, because we no longer really experience it as sinful.

Building and Not Depleting Our Freewill Accounts

Each of these views, in its own way, reminds us that freewill comes and goes, that we have more or less of it depending on our circumstances and depending on how well we shepherd, foster, and tend to it.  People in harder life situations often have a harder time expressing their freewill, as do those who have let their lives spiral away from the steady discipline of the Torah.

What Hashem has to do with this, we can’t be sure, except to know that Hashem calls to us, all the time, to make good choices, to do our best to build greater and greater freewill, and to use that to foster the best relationship with Hashem that we can.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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