Some of the most important blessings that we enjoy in life we take for granted. For example, breathing. The Gemara actually says that we should give thanks to Hashem for every breath – al kol neshima veneshima. Seeing somebody on a ventilator, G-d forbid, makes us realise what a blessing breathing is. But generally, we take breathing for granted. We don’t even think about it, we do it subconsciously.
One of the blessings which G-d has given us and which we take for granted is freedom itself. When we talk about freedom, we are not talking about freedom in the political sense but rather freedom of choice, namely, that G-d has given every single human being the freedom to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. We have the freedom to make decisions and affect our lives.
Our parsha, Bo, opens with G-d saying to Moshe Bo el par’oh ki ani hichbadeti et libo ve’et lev avadav lema’an shiti ototai eileh bekirbo, “come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order that I may place My signs in their midst.” Here, as well as in last week’s parsha, we find a clear reference to the fact that G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice by “hardening his heart.” At the beginning, when Moshe comes to Pharaoh and says let the people go, Pharaoh refuses. Then come the first five plagues, one after the other. With each plague, Pharaoh says alright, I will let them go, and as soon as the plague is taken away he changes his mind.
Initially Pharaoh was operating completely out of free choice. But at a certain point G-d takes away Pharaoh’s free choice, where he can longer choose to let the people go. This poses a moral question: how could G-d take away his free choice? Free choice is one of the fundamental pillars of the Torah; how could G-d take it away?
Forfeiting the right of free choice
Our sages offer many different approaches to this question. In chapter six of his Laws of Repentance, the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, explains why G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice. He says that although every single person has free choice, there are some really evil people who, after they have chosen to do evil and have done a lot of damage, lose their free choice as a punishment. The punishment is that they can no longer repent. Together with the gift of free choice, repentance is one of the most incredible gifts that G-d has given every single one of us; it allows us to change the past. A person who embarks on the process of repentance with sincerity – including regretting the past, resolving not to do it again, desisting from doing it, and confessing our sins before G-d – can actually rewrite the past. But for people as evil as Pharaoh – who murdered newborn baby boys, ordering them thrown into the River Nile, who enslaved an entire nation, who acted with great chutzpah and treachery towards G-d and Moses – there comes a certain point where G-d says, if I let you repent now there is something unfair about it. It would be unjust to let Pharaoh wake up one day and repent and then be forgiven for all of his past sins. He can’t be given the way out. So G-d says, I am going to block the way from here on. He actually took away Pharaoh’s right to free choice so that when he would eventually die he would have to face full judgment before the Heavenly Court for all his evil actions.
Pharaoh is actually the exception which proves the rule, which is that every single person has free choice; Pharaoh simply lost it because he was so evil. But the Rambam raises another question: if G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice, why does He send Moshe on a pointless mission? Why not just send the remaining plagues and free the Jewish people without having to put Moshe through this up-and-down with Pharaoh, when he knew Pharaoh’s answer would be no?
The Rambam says G-d wanted to show the world that when He takes away a person’s free choice there is nothing they can do to get it back; it’s gone forever.
That’s what happened with Pharaoh. And G-d wanted the whole world to know that Pharaoh’s free choice was taken away and that there was nothing Pharaoh could do to get it back. G-d wants us to know this, and it’s very important for our day-to-day lives: from the fact that G-d takes away free choice, we can learn free choice is a gift and not something we should take for granted. When we realise that it is something which can be taken away, we begin to appreciate it, in the same way that seeing someone on a ventilator makes us appreciate that breathing is a gift. When we look at what happened to Pharaoh, how he behaved so irrationally that he lost his freedom of choice, we realise that we dare not take free will for granted; we must appreciate it, for it is a gift and we need to understand how valuable it is.
Living with free choice
How do we appreciate freedom? The key to understanding this is actually the key to understanding how Judaism operates. On the one hand, Judaism is a philosophy, an ideology, an incredible intellectual system; on the other hand Judaism is a living wisdom, not merely wisdom which stays in the books and the ivory tower; we have to live according to it in our day-to-day lives, where it becomes part of who we are. For example, let us look at the fundamental principle of belief in G-d. There is an interesting question which is raised by one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He says that when the Rambam discusses belief in Hashem in his Sefer HaMitzvot, the book in which he catalogues the 613 commandments, the Rambam defines the mitzvah to believe in G-d as a mitzvah leha’amin, a mitzvah “to believe” that there is a G-d. But when the Rambam discusses belief in Hashem in his Laws of the Foundation Principles of the Torah, he says it is a mitzvah ley’dah, a mitzvah “to know” that there is a G-d. What is the difference between the two?
Rav Soloveitchik explains that “to believe” is a philosophical, ideological, intellectual belief; “to know” is to live with it, to live by it, to incorporate it into our lives. Belief in G-d is a philosophical principle, but it is also a real-life, emotional, spiritual principle that we live with every single day. When we see a magnificent sunset, we can feel the artistic genius and mastery of G-d in creating a beautiful world. Rav Soloveitchik gives the example from Rabbeinu Bechayay, who says that when we look at the love between a mother and a child and we see how powerful that love is, we can feel G-d’s presence and can see His hand in everything. Belief in G-d is not something which is stuck in the books of philosophy, it is about feeling and seeing His presence in everything we do.
Rav Soloveitchik says this is the same regarding the principle of free choice. On the one hand we have the philosophical belief of free choice; on the other hand we need to make it part of our day-to-day lives so that we appreciate it not only on an intellectual level but on an emotional and spiritual level as well. On a philosophical level, we can understand free choice: the Rambam explains in chapter 5 of the Laws of Repentance that G-d has given us mitzvot to do – there is good, there is bad this is what we should do, this is what we shouldn’t – and that the whole Torah only makes sense if we believe in free choice. Secondly, he says the defining quality of a human being – namely, what differentiates us from all other creatures that G-d created – is the freedom of choice. Animals can choose but only within a very limited range. They cannot override their instincts and they do not make moral decisions. A lion can choose to hunt the impala in this way or that, but he does not think about the pain he is inflicting on the impala nor does he try to find another food source, because that is not within its frame of reference. A lion is pre-programmed, human beings are not; we have free choice and we have the ability to override instinct, do the right thing, make moral choices, and choose between good and evil.
That is on a philosophical level. But on an emotional level, we need to live with free will in our day-to-day-lives, to live with the knowledge that G-d made us free, we make decisions and with those decisions come responsibilities. It is easy to deny free choice, to blame our DNA, our upbringing and all kinds of circumstances we use to excuse the decisions we make. But although we are influenced by all of these factors, ultimately we have free choice in every decision that we make.
Believing in free will means acknowledging that we have the ability to change
When the Rambam codified Torah law, he pulled the laws together from all of the discussions in the Talmud. The Talmud, as we know, is structured in a way that reads like a verbal debate; it is a record of all the debates and the oral tradition that was received from G-d on Mount Sinai. It flows freely like a conversation, moving from one subject to another. Therefore, for example, one can have a discussion of the laws of tzitzit in a few different places in the Talmud. One of the important questions to ask whenever we study the Rambam is under which category did he choose to place a particular discussion. Regarding our discussion, it is interesting to note that the Rambam chose to deal with the principles of free choice not in his Laws of Foundation Principles of the Torah where he deals with belief in G-d and all of the other philosophical principles, but rather in the Laws of Repentance. Why?
Perhaps the reason the Rambam deals with the principles of free will in the Laws of Repentance is because repentance is about change, and we can only change if we believe we have the power to change. Conventional wisdom says a leopard doesn’t change his spots; this is who I am, I cannot change. But to really believe in freedom means that we can look at our lives and say, we need to change, we need to improve, we need to do better – and we can. We need to do more mitzvot, find another path, and we can only do that if we really believe in freedom – not as an abstract, philosophical principle alone, but as something that we live with on an emotional and spiritual level every single day of our lives.