We had a discussion in class a while ago about the section in Exodus (parashat Vaera) where G-d tells Moses that he “will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This is a difficult passage that has been challenging rabbis for centuries, and the Rambam’s explanation in the Mishneh Torah–that habitual evil left unchecked for too long can eventually rule out even the possibility of repentance–seems no so much to resolve the issue as to focus and intensify it. To put it bluntly, is it possible that in this instance G-d was willing and able to suspend the free will of a human being, even a habitually wicked one, to make a point? And if it were possible in this instance, then why not others, also? Does this passage not call into question the very meaning of free will in the shadow of a transcendent G-d?

We would all like to believe that we are ultimately free to choose between good and evil. To do otherwise would be to take an ironic stance toward our own moral commitments. And yet, those of us who strive to resist the deceptive attractions of moral irony must find some answer to its claims, particularly because they seem so often to come from the mouth of experience and worldly knowledge. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote in the introduction to Totality and Infinity, “Everyone will agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are duped by morality.”

I’m not sure whether I can answer the challenge posed by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but some thoughts did occur to me today which seemed to help put the question in perspective. As far as I can see, the theological possibility of free will does not necessarily exclude the psychological observation that peoples’ behavior tends to be influenced by their environment. If what we mean by free will is some sacrosanct, inviolable thing, utterly insulated from its surroundings, then it’s hard to even imagine such a thing existing, or having any effect on the world if it did. Doesn’t a great deal of our behavior toward others express a certain fundamental assumption that what we say or do may have an effect on how they think, or feel, or at least behave? How else is an argument, or a threat, or a word of comfort supposed to work?

In order to make a difference in the world around you, you have to be open to being changed in return. This is true with regard to our fellow human beings, and it is true of our relationship with God. If we believe that God has an active role in creation (and this is a belief I find strongly persuasive), then we have to at least entertain the possibility that the way we think and feel has been strongly influenced by the ongoing conversation with the Eternal that has been at play in the events of our lives.

Where then does this leave Pharaoh? Raised in a society that treats him like a god, surrounded by sycophantic admirers and steeped in a culture that sees itself as the pinnacle of human civilization, it is not hard to imagine the kind of egocentric character that might be formed by such a biography. And into the middle of this carefully circumscribed world strides Moses, the scruffy, bearded, sun-baked representative of an enslaved people and its unknown god. There was little in the Egyptian king’s life that could have prepared him for this radical challenge to his smug self-regard.

In a biblical world, in which God is always seen to be lurking behind the wings, breathing the breath of a transcendent outside into the otherwise airtight box of history, is it so difficult to detect in these circumstances of Pharaoh’s life the means by which God “hardened his heart?” When weighed against the calcified accumulation of historical necessity, what can be the significance of “free will,” of the inward exception that exempts itself from the prerogatives of the past? It is precisely this conflict, and its surprising conclusion, that lie at the heart of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. For Moses himself, though not to as great a degree as Pharaoh, had tasted what the most sophisticated civilization in the world had to offer, but gave it all up in reaction to the injustice he saw taking place in front of him. If the meaning of free will is to be found anywhere in this story, I think it is in the fact that this decisive moment in Moses’s life, this moment of uncontrollable rage at the mistreatment of one human being by another, happened long before he is likely to have even heard of the God of Israel. Perhaps this is what Rashi is trying to tell us– that the meaning of free will in a God-haunted universe is that the decisive encounter with God will only happen-whether we are Pharaoh or Moses–once our choices have already been made.