What the Exodus Tells Us About Free Will

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The following piece is an excerpt from “ The Telling: How Judaism's Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life” by Mark Gerson.

In the story of Exodus, which recounts the Israelites’ flight to freedom, readers are told that the heart of the oppressive Pharaoh was “hardened.” With respect to the first five of the ten plagues inflicted upon Egypt, either the Pharaoh’s heart became hard or the Pharaoh “hardened his own heart.” Then the dynamic changed. It was God who actively hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in four of the five succeeding plagues.

But if God wanted to overcome the Pharaoh, why did he, the all-powerful, bother to harden his adversary’s heart? Moreover, what implications did God’s control over the Pharaoh in the story of Exodus have for mankind, specifically our notion of free will?

The Telling by Mark Gerson

There are two leading explanations, both of which illuminate human nature and offer powerful instructions for living a better, healthier, and happier life.

The first was provided by Nachmanides, a leading Jewish scholar of the 13th century. He argued that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart to preserve the Egyptian tyrant’s free will. Several times during the plagues, the Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go. But as soon as a plague was alleviated, the Pharaoh changed his mind. These plagues, Nachmanides concluded, did not genuinely change the Pharaoh. They just tortured him. The Pharaoh merely promised he would free the Israelites because, like most people, he would have said anything to end torture. And as soon as the torture was over, the Pharaoh “hardened his heart,” reverting to what he truly believed, keeping the Israelites enslaved.

Then more plagues came. They would, logically, need to be more punishing than the first set. Is it possible that the Pharaoh would, because of the brutal quality of the additional plagues, just have given in and freed the Israelites? Sure, he had almost done so previously, and a little more torture might have made him fold. But God was not trying only to free the Israelites. He was also trying to win an argument.

God wanted to convince the Pharaoh of the truth of ethical monotheism, and, in so doing, inspire all the other nations to recognize his truth. A quick escape following a “decision” made under torture would not accomplish that. The Pharaoh would only recognize God as the supreme being after a battle thoroughly fought and with virtually everything on the line. In turn, God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the strength to withstand the torture and, therefore, the opportunity to independently decide for himself whether or not to free the Israelites.

The second explanation for why God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart draws from the order of the hardening. Only after the Pharaoh hardened his own heart many times did God harden the Pharaoh’s heart at all. The Pharaoh’s heart did not go back to its original state after he hardened it following each plague because that is not what hearts do. Every act alters the human heart. Here, the Pharaoh’s heart became harder every time he hardened it. After five plagues, the Pharaoh’s heart had become so hard it was as if God himself had hardened it. In other words, the Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites in response to the early plagues became a habit.

That God’s hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart followed the Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart yields a fundamental Jewish teaching. Everyone understands that there is a relationship between thought and action. The common assumption is that we think and then we act—we develop a conviction or a feeling and then act accordingly. But this does not describe the Pharaoh and the plagues. Though the lives of his subjects and the future of his regime were at stake, the Pharaoh violated the first rule of holes by continuing to dig.

This observation turns into moral guidance when placed alongside a story from Judaism’s Oral Law, known as the Talmud. According to the story, there was a debate among several preeminent rabbis over what constituted the most important passage in the Torah. One rabbi posited it was “Love your fellow as yourself.” Another asserted “Man is created in the image of God.” Yet another contended “Hear, O Israel.” The surprising entry into this competition came from a fourth rabbi. He chose a seemingly obscure verse from Exodus: “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” Rabbi Doron Perez, the leader of the Mizrachi World Movement, explains, “It is only through a continuous and consistent commitment, day in and day out, that change in ourselves and the world can truly be evoked.”

This is one of the most important psychological truths in Judaism. Our thoughts, our characters, our perspectives, our ideas, and, consequently, our future actions are a product of what we do now. The lesson is clear, profound, and important: If you want to have a certain quality, act it—and soon it will be like God instilled it. We are the product of what we do continually. We are, in other words, the sum of our habits. And this might be the most liberating idea in the world.

Indeed, we are never entirelyor even close to whollyproducts of our environments, our genes, our childhoods, or our emotions, all of which are difficult or impossible to control, interpret, and even identify. We are, first and foremost, products of our actions, which are easier to control. If we can control our actions, and our actions determine our thoughts, and the combination of actions and thoughts determines who we are, the Jewish answer to the best question—How can I be a better person?—emerges.

The Jewish answer: You can be whoever you choose to be. All you have to do is decide what kind of person you want to be and act accordingly. The implication for all of us today is stunning. If you want to be a generous person, do not worry about what latent insecurities may be causing you to donate less than you should. Just give every day. If you wish you were friendlier, do not plumb the depths of your childhood to figure out why you are so inwardly focused. Just greet two new people each day with a bright “hello.”

The Jewish philosophy of habit is embodied in the magnificent expression “second nature.” While the idea of one’s nature might be complicated—from what it is to how to modify it—one’s second nature is very real and not at all complicated. And neither, thrillingly, is changing it. We have to choose who we want to be, select the habits that will make us that kind of person, practice them regularly, and we will soon be acting in accordance with our second nature. Our first nature—whatever it is—will not matter nearly as much as our second nature, which we ourselves will have sculpted. And it all starts with one step taken thoughtfully and performed habitually.

Mark Gerson is author of "The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life" and Co-Founder of GLG and Co-Founder and Chairman of United Hatzalah Israel.

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