What Makes Us Human

“I will harden his heart so that he will not let them go.”

If it were up to Pharaoh alone, he may have let the Jewish people free long before the tenth plague. God said that He would “harden his heart,” effectively removing his free will, so that he can not let them go. How could – and, really, why would – God remove someone’s free will? Furthermore, how could God then punish Pharaoh, holding him accountable for actions which were not his choice?

In his introduction to The Ethics of our Fathers, the great medieval sage Maimonides wrote that taking away Pharaoh’s free will was itself Pharaoh’s punishment.  His decisions were so destructive that he no longer deserved the privilege of having free will. Moreover, Maimonides writes, it was the natural consequence and perfect punishment in that the punishment itself “is the very sin which it punishes.” To understand this cryptic comment, we must delve more deeply into Maimonides’s view of free will. According to Maimonides, free will is a gift from God, and it is one of the features which distinguishes human beings from other animals. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his Meshekh Hokhma writes that free will is the “tselem E-lohim” which is mentioned in Genesis. That is, when God created man “in His image,” that image was free will. Thus, free will is the defining feature of humanity. What makes us human rather than animal is our free will.

It follows that taking away someone’s free will effectively amounts to taking away his humanity. Modern theories echo this notion. Social ethicist Herbert Kelman writes that to treat another person as fully human means to recognize him as “capable of making choices, and entitled to live his own life on the basis of his own goals and values.” Cruelly enslaving others is the worst form of taking away their humanity. We can now understand how hardening Pharaoh’s heart was the natural consequence and most appropriate punishment given his crimes. One who takes away another’s humanity reveals a deficiency in himself. Namely, that his humanity, too, is lacking. Pharaoh dehumanized the Israelites through four hundred years of servitude and slavery and, in doing so, revealed that he was sub-human and likened to an animal. Removing his free will was the natural next step.

Soon, we will tell the story of our people, about our dehumanizing enslavement in Egypt and our subsequent freedom. We tell the story in order to remind ourselves where we came from and how we got to where we are now, as we find in the Mishna, “In every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt.” The Torah further states, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We know what being treated as subhuman is like. Our experience in Egypt therefore brings about our obligation and responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that people in this world are treated as every human deserves to be treated: as fully human. As we sit to our seder, let us think about our relationships: have we treated our friends, family, and neighbors as fully human? Have we recognize their right to their own free will, choices, and goals? And let us think about the world at large: whose freedom has been taken away, and what can we do about it?

This essay appeared in the April 18, 2019, print edition of The Jewish World under the column Our Local Rabbis Discuss Torah.  It is republished here with the editors’ permission. 

About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.
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