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Let My People Go

01/25/2023 04:43:04 PM


Rabbi Kelly Levy

I’ll begin this week’s blog with a joke: “Hey Siri, do you have free will?” Siri responds, “I have been programmed to say yes.”

While this may not be the joke of the century, I do hope it made you smile a little bit. And, perhaps, maybe it made you think more deeply about the concept of free will?

So, why bring up this big and somewhat heavy topic? Well, this week’s Torah portion says it all. Last week, Moses began his negotiation with Pharoah to let the Israelite people go free. After each of the first few plagues, Pharoah hardens his own heart and refuses to let the people go. In this week’s portion, we continue to read about the plagues and notice a slight shift in the language regarding Pharoah’s stubbornness: “But the Eternal stiffened Pharoah’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (Exodus 10:20).

Rather than Pharoah stopping himself from granting the Israelites freedom, this time God interferes and hardens Pharoah’s heart. Why would God do that? What if the Israelites could have been freed much sooner and prevented further suffering? In actuality, God tells Moses that God will harden Pharoah’s heart long before Pharoah even has a chance. In Exodus 4:21, we read, “And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharoah all the marvels that  I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go.’”

Does this imply that God was a puppeteer for the entire scene between Pharoah and Moses? What if Pharoah said “Yes!” immediately after Moses asked? Or, what if the rod turning into a snake was enough to prove God’s greatness?

Rabbinic commentators have sought many answers to this question. Ibn Ezra explains: The answer is that God gave wisdom to man, and placed insight into his heart to be able to draw additional power to increase good, or to detract from his evil. But the reason for the hardening of [Pharoah’s] heart is to increase God’s miracles.”

There are many other reasons given for God’s decision, but the question remains: Did Pharoah have free will, or not? To better answer this question, I encourage you to attend Shabbat morning Torah study. But spoiler alert: there isn’t a definitive answer! Like many other questions in life, we just don’t know the answer. We can create our own possible solutions, our own theories, our own ideas. In the end, we decide which feels most accurate and right for ourselves and go with that.

As for Pharoah, I like to think he would have let the people go after the first couple of plagues, that he really wasn’t such a bad guy. But, we’ll never know! What do you think could have happened?

Sat, April 20 2024 12 Nisan 5784