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Daily Verse: Exodus 7:5

Tuesday 24 Tevet 5783 (17-01-23)

What About the Free Will of Pharaoh?

וְיָדְע֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה בִּנְטֹתִ֥י אֶת־יָדִ֖י עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם וְהוֹצֵאתִ֥י אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִתּוֹכָֽם׃

"5 The Egyptians, too, will recognize that I am God, when I raise My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst." Nonetheless, even though I will make Pharaoh obstinate, if he truly wishes he will still be able to repent."

It was G-d who made Pharaoh's heart stubborn to give in and release the people. Yet Pharaoh recognized the hand of G-d in all the miracles/plagues that came upon Egypt. To what extent did Pharaoh have his own choice, to what extent did he have free will and could choose to let the people go anyway. In this verse we learn from the commentators that if he truly wanted to repent, he could.

Was Repentance Witheld From Him?

The answer we can find if the read the hole story of the plagues.

After each of the first five plagues, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardenend his own heart. It is only from the sixth plague onwards that his hard-heartedeness is attributed to G-d. Rashi understands the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the last five plagues as a form of punishment for the first five, when it was Pharoah's own obstinacy that led him to refuse to let the people go. And Maimonides interprets G-d''s hardening of Pharaoh's heart as meaning that "repentance was withheld from him, and the liberty to turn from his wickedness was nog accorded to him.

So Did he or Did he not Have the Free will to Repent?

It may be that a person, and the Parao was such a person, will commit such a great sin, or so many sins, without repenting, that G-d will ten respond by not granting him an opportunity to repent from the bad ways that he has freely chosen to follow.

These then are people who sinned willingly and multiplied their iniquity until it was determined by G-d to stop their repentance.

But G-d in His mercy, informed Pharaoh of this when He declared (through Moses), "On account of this I have left you, to show you My power.... And as for you and your servants, I know that you are not yet afraid of the L-rd, G-d." God did this to make it known through Pharaoh to all the inhabitants of the world that when He withdraws His help for repentance, the sinner will continue his evil without ever being able to repent, with the result that he will die without having repented.

Turning Point

Until the fifth plague, Pharaoh had a chance to turn around, then it became impossible. Fortunately, most people will always retain the free will to return to HaShem, but the long one walks the wrong path the harder it becomes to change.

We already see this with children who exhibit difficult to explain behavior. Some negative behaviors are already so ingrained that they have become a habit, and the longer a habit lasts, the harder it becomes to unlearn.

For example, I saw a little boy in my class today who has to pat every student who walks past him. Not meant to be unkind, but the reaction the other student gives is too good to inhibit his behavior.

"I know teacher, but my hands just want that" was the response I got when I pointed it out to him to stop.

For example, habits can become such fixed routes in our heads that despite free will, it can be a challenge to stop. And don't we all have experiences with that, one person with smoking, the other person with snacking, the other with ...

Following King David, let us say:

"Support me with a generous spirit." (Tehillim 51;14)

When he used this words he had this intention in his prayer:

"Let me spirit be willing to do Your will, and do not cause my sin to prevent me from repenting. Rahter, let the free choise remain in my hand until I prent, and comprehend and aprreciate the paht of Your Truth."

Source: Kehot Chumash Va'eira, Seven Gates of Righteous Knowledge by Rabbi Moshe Weiner and Dr. Michael Schulman, Covenant & Conversation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.


Angelique Sijbolts is one of the main writers for the website. She contributes for the admin of the website in English and Dutch. She teaches Hebrew to beginners and intermediate students at the Academy.

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