Did Pharaoh Have Free Will?

Why didn’t Pharaoh release the Israelites?

By Naftali Silberberg

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3)

Free choice is the essential component which justifies the concepts of reward and punishment. It would be inappropriate to punish a robot for performing an immoral act which it was programmed to do. Nor would one reward a stove for cooking a sumptuous meal, or a bee for producing delicious honey. Humans, on the other hand, are rewarded and punished for their actions because they choose to do good or evil. This is why this week’s Torah portion has always puzzled Jewish philosophers: How could Pharaoh be punished for refusing to comply with G‑d’s demands to grant freedom to the Israelites, if G‑d Himself “hardened his heart”? To borrow a line from our patriarch Abraham: “Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?”

Many interesting answers are given to explain this seeming injustice.

Nachmanides offers an answer which is as profound as it is astoundingly simple. He argues that had G‑d refrained from hardening Pharaoh's heart, he would have then been deprived of the ability to make a coherent and true choice. Indeed, the plagues would have compelled him to let the Israelites go—an option he most certainly would not have chosen in the absence of G‑d’s strong hand.

G‑d steeled Pharaoh’s resolve, causing that the plagues shouldn’t interfere with his decision-making process

Pharaoh’s freeing the Israelites after their G‑d had ravaged his land with frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, etc., can be compared to handing over one’s wallet to an armed mugger: neither is an act of “free” choice.

Since the scale was so heavily weighted towards Pharaoh’s sending the Jews out—after all, what would any normal sovereign choose to do when his country is slowly and systematically being destroyed?—G‑d steeled Pharaoh’s resolve, causing that the plagues shouldn’t interfere with his decision-making process, and allowing him to continue expressing his true desire. G‑d hardened his heart so that he would have the strength and ability to freely choose his course of action—and he freely chose to retain the Israelites as slaves. Thus Pharaoh rightfully earned divine retribution for his shameful behavior.

The extent to which G‑d went to ensure the integrity of Pharaoh’s free choice is nothing short of incredible. And the intended moral is equally compelling and uplifting.

If the benevolent and all-merciful Creator manipulated Pharaoh’s psyche and cognitive abilities to guarantee his ability to choose evil, certainly He does anything necessary to ensure our ability to choose good!

It is very popular to blame a plethora of external factors for one’s shortcomings. But the Torah teaches us that even the most awesome and devastating circumstances don’t affect a person’s G‑d-given of freedom of choice.

We must never become discouraged. No matter what is written in the pages of our private history books, no matter our current personal situation, we always have the moral strength to choose the proper path.