Bo:  Hardened Heart

Did Pharaoh Have Free Will?

An enduring mystery surrounding Pharaoh is why he stubbornly refused to let the Jews leave Egypt, even as a series of punishing plagues that defied the laws of nature proved that the God of Israel was real. Common sense should have told him that Moses was not just another sorcerer. Rav Aaron Bakst (1869-1941) was particularly focused on this question. Once his students entered his home and found him pacing and speaking to himself, “What was Pharaoh thinking when he saw these great miracles in front of his very eyes?!” Suddenly, he stopped pacing and turned to the students to explain, “He did not think at all! Only through lack of thinking can a person come to ignore such great miracles without allowing them to influence him in the slightest.”

Instead of thinking rationally, analyzing the evidence and making reasoned decisions, Pharaoh operated from blind emotion: anger, vindictiveness, greed. His almost superhuman stubbornness led him to repeatedly refuse Moses’ request to let his people go. After the first five plagues, the Torah says that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” to prevent him from letting the Jews leave (Ex. 10:1) Seforno (~1470-1550) explains that hardening his heart actually gave Pharaoh free will; sheer self-preservation would have led any sane person to let the Jews go, just to make the punishment stop. Pharaoh’s brain would finally have overruled his heart after the fifth plague, but God made the tyrant’s rage so powerful that it prevented Pharaoh from thinking at all. 

Don’t make Pharaoh’s mistake. Even (especially) in moments of great emotion, remember to think!

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