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"FREE WILL" Y

by Rabbi David Kapenstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Fundamental to the concept of reward and punishment is the axiom that Hashem allows us to choose between good and bad. Commonly referred to as free will, Hashem decides our merit and ultimately our future in this world and the World to Come based on the choices that we make.

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Fundamental to the concept of reward and punishment is the axiom that Hashem allows us to choose between good and bad. Commonly referred to as free will, Hashem decides our merit and ultimately our future in this world and the World to Come based on the choices that we make.

The Talmud tells us that, in fact, we have a limited range of free will. Basically, our sages understood that most of our life experiences are determined by Hashem to provide us with choices, but that the life experiences themselves are not in our purview to determine. For example, Hashem may arrange for someone to solicit our support, financially or otherwise, to help with a community project. Hashem decided, not us, that we should be solicited, in order that we could make the decision whether or not to participate. Should we not take advantage of the opportunity, Hashem will offer that mitzvah to someone else.

In this and last week's Torah portions, we learn that Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart at the conclusion of many of the plagues, in keeping with what He told Moses from the outset: "I will harden Pharaoh's heart in order that I will multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:3). Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, points out that Hashem foresaw that since Pharaoh would never allow the Jews to leave Egypt on his own accord, Hashem would make an example out of Pharaoh's stubbornness. Hashem would continue to ask Moses to press Pharaoh for the Jews' release, so that when Pharaoh refused, Hashem's retribution on Pharaoh would serve as an example of what happens to those who disobey Hashem's will.

Many commentators pose the obvious question: If Hashem took away Pharaoh's free will by hardening his heart, then how can Pharaoh be punished for refusing to listen to Moses? The Ramban, a great 12th century commentator, explains that by hardening Pharaoh's heart, Hashem was not taking away Pharaoh's free will, but was rather giving it back. That is to say, had Hashem not intervened, Pharaoh would have certainly let the Jews out of Egypt, albeit not initially. Nevertheless, since Hashem saw that Pharaoh was refusing to let the Jews go free, He strengthened Pharaoh's resistance to do so even after Pharaoh was willing to allow the exodus. However, He never forced Pharaoh's hand. Thus, Pharaoh continued to be punished for refusing to let the Jews go because each time it was Pharaoh making the decision. Because Hashem restored Pharaoh's stubbornness, Pharaoh was able to continue to refuse Moses' requests, even when faced with the decimation of Egypt.

Such is the nature of Hashem's relationship with Mankind. Hashem gives us the ability to attain our goals, even if those goals are not what Hashem desires. The Talmud describes this by saying that a person is led in the way that he chooses, both for good and for bad. Pharaoh was only one of many leaders throughout history who Hashem allowed to cause anguish to the Jewish people, in part, to allow us to see the retribution that they receive for their immoral character. This should not only give us solace for the travails we have faced, but inspire us to lofty spiritual goals for which we will most certainly receive Divine assistance.

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Rabbi David Kapenstein is the director of development at the Torah Day School of Atlanta.

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