Parshat Va’era 5780: The Gyrations of Pharaoh’s Free Will and Possible Sequels Today?

Shalom Friends;

This week, I am personally dedicating Parshat HaShevua, Parsha Va’era Lilui Nishmas for HoRav Chaim Zev ben Avraham Aharon HaLevi (HoRav Chaim Zev Malinowitz, z”l who was niftar 23 Marcheshvan 5780).

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Va’era 5780: The Gyrations of Pharaoh’s Free Will and Possible Sequels Today?

by Moshe Burt

In Parshat Hashevua Shemos, this author touched upon various possibilities: whether a foreign nation had conquered Egypt and installed its Pharaoh over Egypt, or whether the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time was overthrown by his own political advisors and developed convenient politically expedient amnesia regarding Yosef and the Jews in order to return to power, or whether the Pharaoh who subjugated the Jews was a new indigenous Pharaoh.

Derech HaTeva, we could view any of the above as natural occurrences. But we know that the Yad Hashem controls everything, and yet we have been given free will. So what about the gyrations of Pharaoh’s free will and what we observe today in Israel’s and world political and governmental echelons?

Rabbi Weissman provides a commentary in his sefer “The Midrash Says” on Sefer Shemos (pages 3-4) regarding this notion that the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time was overthrown by his own political advisors and developed convenient politically expedient amnesia regarding Yosef and the Jews in order to return to power:

The Egyptians were afraid of the growing population of the Jews. The Egyptian noblemen warned Pharaoh, “There is great likelihood of a future war with the kings of Canaan…. In case of warfare, the Jews will join our enemies and force us to leave the land. We must take action against them!” (Rabbi Weissman citing Rashi, Perek 1, posuk 10)

“Fools!” Pharaoh rebuked them. “If not for their ancestor Yosef who saved the country from years of famine, we would not be alive today. How can you think of harming them?” (Rabbi Weissman citing Shemos Rabbah, Perek 1, posuk 9)

The Egyptians were enraged at Pharaoh’s sympathy for the Jews. They ousted him from the throne, exposing him to a fate of shame and humiliation because he refused to deal unjustly with the Jews.

Pharaoh did not change his attitude for three months. After that period of time, he decided that it was more profitable for him to comply with the demands of the nobility and the people. He announced that he wished to resume his position, having formulated a new policy toward the Jews. (Rabbi Weissman again citing Shemos Rabbah, Perek 1, posuk 9)

The Pharaoh who ascended the throne three months later was not the same man who had left it. He was a “new” king (Rabbi Weissman citing gemura Sota 11a which cites two different views. One contends that the king who ill-treated the Jews was actually a new regent. The other asserts that he was the same Pharaoh as previously who had merely revised his policy), cold and cruel, determined to put an end to the “Jewish plague.” He now acted as if he had never known Yosef…. so would he soon declare that he did not know Hashem either[?] (Rabbi Weissman citing Meforash Tiferet Tzion)

With the above in mind, this author turns to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin who provides context regarding the gyrations of Pharaoh’s free will and Hashem’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Shemot, pages 51-52):

At the core of theology of the Jews lies a taut balance between three components which define the very parameters of our lives. While the details of this balance have been debated for centuries, the majority approach can be summarized in the following three points:

1/ Free Will: The belief that man freely chooses his way and defines the quality of his life is central to Jews’ thought. Without free will, man cannot be an independent being, responsible before Hashem for his actions.

2/ Prescience. Almost all Jewish scholars maintain that Hashem is aware of all future events, including man’s personal choices. Hashem’s prior knowledge, however, does not affect man’s freely made choices.

3/ Predestination: Judaism recognizes that elements of our lives are predetermined. On an individual level, predeterminated elements include our genetic makeup, when and where we are born, and to whom we are born. On a national level, our belief in Moshiach and a messianic era reflects our conviction that our history is moving towards a… predefined goal. In spite of these predetermined elements of life, however, the quality and details of both our personal and national journeys remain in our hands.

As long as the above components stay firmly within their boundaries, the philosophical balance between them remains understandable. Turmoil results, however, when the balance is upset.

Even before Moshe’s return to Egypt, Hashem predicts, And I will harden [Pharaoh’s] heart and he will not let the people go. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 4, posuk 21) …The Torah states that Hashem makes good on His promise and… “hardens the heart” of the Egyptian king. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 9, posuk 12, Perakim 10, posukim 1, 20, 27 and Perek 11, posuk 10)

In our Parshat Va’era, the Torah relates Hashem telling Moshe:

“And I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall put My hand upon Egypt; and I shall take out My legions — My people the B’nei Yisrael — from the land of Egypt, with great judgements. and Egypt shall know that I am Hashem…” (Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posukim 3-5 as rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, “The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary)

Rabbi Goldin now offers questions and commentary on the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (“Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Shemot, pages 52-57):

The Torah seems to indicate that Hashem robs Pharaoh of his rightful free will. By “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” doesn’t Hashem unfairly predetermine both Pharaoh’s choices and his (and his nation’s) resulting fate?

The textual record is inconsistent. After each of the first five plagues (makos) the Torah states that Pharaoh “hardens” his own heart, apparently of his own free will. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posuk 22, Perek 8, posukim 11, 15, 28 and Perek9, posuk 7) Only in conjunction wth the sixth through tenth plagues does Hashem fulfill his prediction by “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh.

What causes the change in Pharaoh’s mindset and in Hashem’s response?

The Rabbis were well aware that the issues surrounding the apparent suspension of Pharaoh’s free will strike at the very core of Jews’ beliefs.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is quoted in the Midrash Rabbah as stating, “[the textual testimony concerning Pharaoh] provides an opening for heretics to say: ‘[Pharaoh] was not allowed to repent.'” (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah, Shemos Perek 13, posuk 3)

Centuries later, both the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra wonder…, if Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then what was [Pharaoh’s] sin?” (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posuk 3, Ramban ibid)

Authorities suggest a wide range of approaches.

…Those such as Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal)… find the problems so troubling that they feel compelled to claim that the questions are not questions at all:

Know that all acts can be ascribed to Hashem, for all are caused by Him — some through absolute decree and others through man’s free choice which has been granted by Him… It can therefore be said that [Hashem], as the author of all acts, hardened Pharaoh’s heart. (Rabbi Goldin citing Shmuel David Luzzatto on Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posuk 3)

Luzzatto… maintain[s] that only actions that defy logic, such as Pharaoh’s obstinacy in the face of the plagues, are actually ascribed in the text to Hashem. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Shmuel David Luzzatto on Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posuk 3)

Other scholars, unwilling to dismiss the overwhelming textual evidence that that Hashem actually “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” attempt… to reconcile that fact with Judaism’s fundamental view on free will…

[Abravanel holds that] the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” is not an independent phenomenon but an inevitable outgrowth of the manner in which Hashem orchestrates the plagues. (Rabbi Goldin citing Abravanel on Sefer Shemos, Perek 7, posuk 3)

This vort touches on, but doesn’t elaborate on why Pharaoh or other Rashayim are denied accessibility to repentance, for whether or not Pharaoh or other Rashayim should be permitted repentance — teshuvah by Hashem is not the focus of this vort.

This author hearkens back to Rabbi Goldin’s citing of Shmuel David Luzzatto:

Luzzatto… maintain[s] that only actions that defy logic, such as Pharaoh’s obstinacy in the face of the plagues, are actually ascribed in the text to Hashem.

That the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time may have been overthrown by his own political advisors and subsequently, after a three month period, developed convenient politically expedient amnesia regarding Yosef and the Jews in order to return to power to subsequently enslave and persecute the Jews and then, after each plague, to harden against the Jews and Hashem seems, to this author, to bear resemblance to the political and governmental machinations and inactivity, including here in Israel, that we view today.

Again Rabbi Goldin’s citing of Shmuel David Luzzatto as this author views events of today:

…Only actions that defy logic… are actually ascribed… to Hashem.

A rival political entity effectively shuts down the legislative branch of government because they can’t get over losing a presidential election to the other party and to a president that they hate, loath and have sought to remove from office from before he even took office. And regarding important issues affecting the nation’s citizenry, the rival party has, like Pharaoh, reversed it’s views and positions on issues of national security — positions previously strongly held — all out of hatred for the current president, not the national good.

In another country which suffered through their third election in three years, a party led by an anti-semite finally got drubbed. It remains to be seen whether effective governance will result.

And, here in Israel, two indecisive elections, ineffective, handcuffed governance, intransigence and hard-heartedness on many sides and indictments of a prime minister for alleged crimes of corruption which have been, at least in part, debunked by American jurist Alan Dershowitz who warned that:

Israel’s criminal justice system was being ‘weaponized’ for “political purposes” in an attempt to defeat Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving premier.

In Israel, certain political entities continue in their attempts toward a third round of elections to leverage their hatred and loathing of a sector of the citizenry with the prime minister’s legal battles in order to oust him from office.

May we see the fulfillment of Am Yisrael: spiritually, morally and as Hashem’s light to the nations — in our days.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — which can only occur when he is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.