“G-d Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart: Reconciling Omniscience and Free Will”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we encounter one of the fundamental problems of philosophy, the conflict between G-d’s omniscience and the human being’s free will, or as it is described in Ethics of the Fathers, “Ha’kol tza’fuy v’ha’reh’shoot nit’na,” G-d is All-knowing, yet each person has free will.

Even before the actual struggle with Pharaoh begins, long before the arrival of the 10 plagues, G-d tells Moshe in Exodus 7:3, “Va’ani ak’sheh et lev Pharaoh,” and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. How can that be? Doesn’t this imply that Pharaoh has no free will?

The truth is that at least during the first five plagues, scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It was only after the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that we find the fulfillment of the Divine promise (Exodus 9:12): “Va’yecha’zek Ha’shem et lev Pharaoh, v’lo sha’ma alay’hem, ka’asher dee’bair Ha’Shem el Moshe,” then the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses.

In their attempts to resolve this challenging issue, the rabbis offer a host of explanations. Maimonides suggests that G-d is the ultimate cause of everything, and by saying that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it is scripture’s way of expressing that G-d is the “First Cause.” Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto (Italian Jewish scholar and philosopher, 1800-1865) suggests that this is scripture’s way of describing not that G-d is the ultimate cause, but rather a way of expressing Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. Umberto Cassuto proffers that this is not scripture’s way, but rather the way of the ancient Hebrews, to attribute every phenomenon to G-d. Employing a different approach, Rav Yosef Albo (14-15th Century Spanish philosopher who wrote Sefer Haikarim) suggests that G-d wanted to test the sincerity of Pharaoh’s repentance, to determine that it was freely motivated. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh imagined that the plagues were accidental rather than providential. Sforno offers a unique interpretation by saying that G-d had to harden Pharaoh’s heart, because otherwise his actions would have been motivated by suffering rather than by pure repentance.

None of these explanations, however ingenious, are entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, it behooves us to attempt to explore the great quandary of G-d’s omniscience and the human’s free will. One of the solutions offered that impressed me as a young man, was the one cited by Rabbi Joseph Albo, who attributes it to his teacher, the great philosopher, Chasdai Ibn Crescas (d. 1412? Spanish philosopher, theologian and statesman). Albo, in the name of Crescas, suggests that every person has a destiny that is obviously known to G-d, because of G-d’s omniscience. So, for instance, person “x,” has destiny “y,” to live 60-70 years. However, suggests Albo, while the human being can not change his or her destiny, the human being can change himself, or herself. We do that through mitzvot and ma’asim tovim, doing good deeds. So through these good acts, person “x” changes and becomes person “x” prime, and destiny “y” consequently becomes destiny “y” prime, perhaps 75-80 years. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we never know when our destiny will change or how far person “x” has to be transformed in order to gain a new destiny. That, of course, is part of the Divine secret and the inscrutable Divine plan. So, while G-d is omniscient, and we can change ourselves, we can never definitively know if our destiny has changed.

The problem with this approach is that, if G-d knows the future, then He knows how far we are going to change, and He will, therefore, also know our new destiny. So how do we have free will?

There is another approach, a Chasidic approach, which I find much more fulfilling. It is less didactic and less scientific, but I feel more convincing.

Chasidic philosophy speaks of the notion of tzimtzum, which means reduction or limitation. Chasidism maintains that G-d, who is omniscient, of His own volition, reduces Himself, limits Himself, restricts Himself, and restricts His omniscience in order to give human beings a gift–a gift of free will. So, while G-d certainly has the ability to know our destiny, He chooses not to, in order to give us the gift of free will.

And so might it be with Pharaoh. Pharaoh certainly had free will, but as a result of tzimtzum, G-d chose not to know what Pharaoh’s destiny was. But because he hardened his heart of his own volition five times, G-d in turn hardens the heart of Pharaoh five times, to punish him for each time that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Freedom of choice is one of the greatest gifts ever given to the human being. But in order to give us that gift, G-d had to reduce himself, expressing ultimate Divine love. Let us then commit ourselves to use the gift of free will for the Divine purpose of perfecting this world under the rule of the Almighty.

May you be blessed.