On the issue of freedom and free will, the Bible tells us that we have a choice between life and good or death and evil. Although it is up to us, the Bible implores us to choose life and good and to reject death and evil (Deuteronomy, 30:15-19). But is it really that simple? The following biblical story, found in this weeks’ Torah Portion, seems to indicate that it is not.
God told Moses to approach Pharaoh and demand that he emancipate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When Pharaoh rejected Moses’ demands, God brought plagues upon him and his people. First came the plague of blood, then of frogs, then lice, then a swarm of wild beasts brought an epidemic that killed all the Egyptian livestock.
Finally, after the sixth plague, when all the Egyptians were afflicted with debilitating boils, Pharaoh was ready to emancipate the Israelites. But it was not to be, for God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not set the Israelite slaves free. God continued to harden Pharaoh’s heart after each of the ensuing three plagues of hail, locusts and darkness (Exodus, 9:12, 9:34, 10:20 and 27 and Ramban). It would seem that God overruled Pharaoh’s ability to exercise his free choice to let the Israelites go. This raises the question whether we really have free choice or whether other powers at times intervene and deter us from acting with our own free will.
According to Saadiah Gaon, humans do not feel that there is a power causing them to act in a particular way, and this proves that they have free will. Saadiah maintains that as long as people allow their natural impulses to be ruled by the intellect, they are considered wise and therefore free (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, treatise 4, the beginning of chapter 4). This definition of free will recognizes that the choices humans have are not arbitrary; rather, they are choices between two separate types of influences that do not have to be equally compelling. Sometimes the emotional impulses will be more powerful than the intellectual argument; at other times the reverse is true. However, one still has the choice of either heeding the intellect or following the heart. As long as one still has this choice one is considered free.
Thus God was not confiscating Pharaoh’s free will or overruling his intellect. Indeed, as some of the commentaries explain, the effect of the plagues was that Pharaoh no longer had the instinctive desire to retain the Israelites as slaves. By hardening his heart, God actually reinstated Pharaoh’s original free will so that he did not feel compelled to free the Israelites. With his hardened heart, Pharaoh had the option of freely choosing between his intellect, which told him to free the Israelites, and his heart-based impulses, which pulled him in the opposite direction. Thus, ironically, the fact that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart did not deny him free will but rather reinstated it.
This biblical story gives us great insight into human freedom and free will. Ultimately we humans are all subject to different influences: emotional, intellectual and circumstantial. Where there is equilibrium between the choice to do good and the choice to do evil, we do not have free will: if we did, we would all be psychopathic. To murder and not to murder, for example, would be equally compelling _ a patently disastrous and untenable state of affairs. The reason Pharaoh faced such destruction was not because God hardened his heart but rather because he was content with being enslaved to his heart and was thus unwilling to find the inner strength to change course and follow his intellect.
We all have similar dilemmas daily, often over seemingly trivial matters such as food. On other occasions we have powerful impulses to act in a way that can, in the long run, be very destructive. The battle rages and we must choose whether to follow our intellect and refrain or follow our impulses and indulge. The more we allow our heart to triumph, the deeper we become enslaved to it. By contrast, each time we choose reason over emotion we are exercising our God-given freedom and thus making it easier to resist potentially damaging temptations.
Given this definition of freedom, it is ironic that Western democracies, with their virtual enslavement to consumerism and materialism, are considered the representatives of the ‘free ‘ world. In order to deserve the title, Western societies must shake off the chains of their enslavement to their impulses. War is certainly justified to attain this type of freedom _ a war between our own hearts and minds rather between ourselves and others, but one in which, for the benefit of society in general, victory is as important.