Today, we will tackle the age-old question: Do we really have free will? In Parsha Bo we read, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, in order that I may display My signs among them and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Shemot 10:1-2). It seems to be that Hashem is not giving pharaoh much of a choice. He hardened his heart; what free will did pharaoh have in deciding whether to let the Jewish slaves free? It seems unfair; it’s as if we can’t hold pharaoh accountable.
Let me ask you a question. What is free will? Does free will only exist in an incubator, in a vacuum? No. One may have the urge to do something wrong, for example, lie for some financial incentive. This lie began with the need for more, then it overtakes you, it captures you; it becomes your world view, you become blinded by it. A person, all of a sudden, will make excuses for something that they never would have had it been presented as a hypothetical circumstance. Let in a little bit of evil and it will control you, it will capture and enslave you, it will become your new truth, your new reality. In Bereishit, Hashem explains to Cain, who just murdered his brother Abel, “If you do not do right Sin crouches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Bereishit 4:7). Hashem warned us right away that sin leads to more sin; once one becomes comfortable with it, it awaits to seduce you again, it desires you.
However, more importantly, we must pay attention to the second part of that quote, “Yet you can be its master.” (Bereishit 4:7). Hashem is not saying, “I will give you a perfect world and all you have to do is make the right choice.” He gave that to Adam and Chava and they blew it by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Instead, Hashem is saying, “I will give you temptations, desires, ego, and an intellect that can fool you into believing whatever your emotions want you to believe…yet, don’t be fooled, you can and are obligated to fight to make the right choice, you can be master over your temptations.” That is true free will, the ability to choose good no matter what pressures you may face. Free will is knowing that one has the ability to make the right decision even when it seems like the whole entire world is against you. That is true free will.
Coming back to pharaoh. Did he have free choice? That should not even be a question! The problem is that pharaoh chose evil, he chose to enslave our nation and wasn’t interested in letting go of his valuable labor force. As he chose evil, evil’s desire was towards him, and so his heart hardened. Hashem lets us, and even aides us in believing that our desires are true, even the evil ones. Why? Free will! Hashem gave us a Torah that spells out right from wrong. And if we choose wrong, He won’t get in our way. In fact, if he did, that would cancel our free will.
However, everything Hashem does is in order to reveal himself. We read in the beginning, “For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants” (Shemot 10:1) Why, one may ask, would Hashem do this? “In order that I may display My signs among them… in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Shemot 10:1-2). The reason that Hashem hardened pharaoh’s already evil heart was in order to show the egyptians, and even more importantly, our nation, that He is the Lord. Yes, Hashem lets us believe our evil desires, He even lets us fall, so that ultimately, He can reveal Himself and redeem us.
Make no mistake, each of us has an evil inclination. Through life, we learn to have mastery over this inclination, but very often, before our soul learns this skill, the evil inclination leads us to very dark places in life. However, it is in these places that Hashem reveals Himself and brings us to redemption.
So, what lesson can we learn, one may ask? First and foremost, we must identify the Torah as our moral guidance. That way we can distinguish between good and evil. What good is free will if we don’t know what good and evil are? When we accept Hashem’s Torah, then no matter how low we sink, with Hashem’s help we will always know the truth and can return to it. Next, we must know that we are not in a perfect world. We may desire bad things, we may be in circumstances where choosing wrong is easier and more enticing. We must be aware and acknowledge that choosing evil will cause more evil. We must also be aware that our mind is powerful; it can convince us that evil is good. So, coming back to the source, Hashem’s Torah is paramount in our daily life. Most importantly, we must know that in every circumstance Hashem gives us a package: a free will and the Torah… so that we may choose the Torah.
Though our emotions offer little free will, our intellect does. As a dear mentor, Rabbi Joshua Zebberman, taught: Hashem hardened pharaoh’s heart, not his mind. Our emotions offer no truth when not guided by our mind. Our mind gives us the ability to look at the Torah and objectively accept it as the ultimate truth; it allows us to unequivocally accept Hashem’s Torah no matter what our emotions may tell us. The acceptance of Hashem’s Torah gives us the ability to decipher Hashem’s will with His help. When our mind rules over our heart, then our heart can constructively build a personal, loving, intimate relationship with Hashem that takes us beyond anything that our intellect can. But first, we must lay the groundwork for our heart, we must serve Hashem with our mind, with our will to actively choose and accept His Torah.