“G-d Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart:
Reconciling Omniscience with Free Will”
(revised and updated from Va’eira 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we encounter one of the fundamental problems of theology, the conflict between G-d’s omniscience and human free will, or as it is articulated in Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15, הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה , G-d is All-knowing, yet each person has free will.

Even before the actual struggle with Pharaoh begins, long before the Al-mighty visits the 10 plagues upon Egypt, G-d tells Moses, in Exodus 7:3, וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה , “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? Does this not 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, Exodus 9:12, the fulfillment of the Divine promise: וַיְחַזֵּק השׁם אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה , then the L-rd hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he [Pharaoh] would not listen to them, as the L-rd had spoken to Moses.

In their attempts to resolve this challenging issue, the rabbis offer a host of explanations.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known universally as Maimonides suggests that G-d is the ultimate cause of everything, and that saying that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, is scripture’s way of expressing that G-d is the “First Cause and Prime Mover!” Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto 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, Rabbi Joseph Albo 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. Ovadia ben Yosef S’forno offers a unique interpretation by saying that G-d had to harden Pharaoh’s heart, because otherwise Pharaoh’s 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 further explore the great quandary of G-d’s omniscience and the human ability to have free will. One of the solutions offered that has long impressed me, was another one cited by Rabbi Yosef Albo, who attributes it to his teacher, the great philosopher, Chasdai Ibn Crescas. Rabbi 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 a person cannot change his or her destiny, a person can change himself or herself, by performing mitzvot and ma’asim tovim, doing good deeds. Through these positive actions, person “X” can change and become person “X prime,” and destiny “Y” consequently becomes destiny “Y prime,” which may be a longer life of 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 Al-mighty’s 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 a G-d Who knows the future, knows how far we are going to change. He will therefore also know our new destiny. So how do people have true free will?

There is another approach, a Chasidic approach, which may be more fulfilling. It is less didactic and less scientific, but, perhaps, more convincing.

Kabbalistic and Chasidic philosophy speak of the notion of tzimtzum, which means contraction, reduction or limitation. Kabbalists and Chasidim maintain that G-d, Who is omniscient, of His own volition, has the ability to reduce Himself, limit Himself, restrict Himself, and restrict His omniscience in order to give human beings a gift–the gift of free will. So, while G-d certainly has the ability to know our destiny, He chooses not to, in order to give the human beings this gift of free will.

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

Freedom of choice is surely one of the greatest gifts of G-d to humankind. But, in order to give us that gift, G-d had to reduce Himself–an expression of ultimate Divine love.

Let us then commit ourselves to use that gift of free will for the ultimate Divine purpose of perfecting this world under the rule of the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.