We often wonder about the tension between “free will” and destiny. Nowhere is this tension more clearly seen than in the Exodus story. “Let my people go,” Moses tells Pharaoh. Pharaoh might have relented in response to a number of the great plagues, yet God “hardens” or “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart. Where was Pharaoh’s free will? How can Pharaoh be fully culpable if God prevented Pharaoh from changing his ways? Did God really prevent Pharaoh from doing anything?
I read an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, a great scholar in Renaissance Italy. He posited that God strengthening Pharaoh’s heart did not take away Pharaoh’s free will. To the contrary, he says that God’s strengthening Pharaoh’s heart actually allowed Pharaoh to continue to act in accordance with his own true desires. Pharaoh never wanted to bend to God’s will. God could certainly break Pharaoh’s will and spirit, but God wanted Pharaoh to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do and not because Pharaoh just could not stand the pressure. Thus, God gave Pharaoh the strength to make his own decisions notwithstanding the pain of the plagues on his people. Pharaoh’s ego would not let him humble himself. He had been told for so long that he was a god that he must have believed it. Because he didn’t use his free will to change, Pharaoh would still be culpable for making the wrong decisions.
The conflict between free will, destiny and God knowing what we will do has challenged scholars for generations. Isn’t it academic though? Whether we are tempted by reward or curbed by fear of punishment or negative consequences, shouldn’t our actions be correct in spite of our own perception of reward or punishment? Isn’t the point that we should always do the right thing for the right reasons? God gave Pharaoh the power to make his own foolish decisions. Isn’t God giving each of us that power? What do we do with it?
This Shabbat, Ruth Bergman teaches us on this very interesting subject of “free will” and “destiny.” How will you exercise your free will? 10:00 a.m. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like.