This week’s Torah portion, Vaera (Ex. 6:2 – 9:35) tells of the first six plagues of Egypt, which come about after Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out into the wilderness to worship their God for three days. Moses warns Pharaoh that the God of the Israelites is powerful and that there will be dire consequences for Pharaoh and the Egyptians if Pharaoh disobeys God’s will. But God also tells Moses “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (Ex. 7:3)”. How are we to interpret this? If God is causing Pharaoh’s heart to harden, how can Pharaoh himself be held responsible for his actions?
Biblical scholar Moshe Greenberg writes, “Pharaoh conducted himself in conformity with his own motives and his own Godless view of his status. God made it so, but Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God’s will”. In Greenberg’s view, God simply used Pharaoh’s own natural stubbornness, rather than forcing him to do anything that was foreign to his nature.
Psychologist Erich Fromm notes that for the first five plagues, it is written “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”, meaning that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and only for the second five, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. He comments, “Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil. It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible. The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes until there is no longer any freedom of choice left him”.
Judaism teaches that we are born with free will. But the case of Pharaoh illustrates that free will may not be limitless.