One of the foundations of religion and morality is free will.
With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah. If humans can’t deliberately choose between right and wrong, there can be no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them; if you are bad, it’s not your fault because being good is impossible.
The Exodus story poses a problem to this, however.
Throughout the story, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and so Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Pharaoh’s free will was hopelessly compromised; how was punishing Pharaoh deserved or fair?
Maimonides’s exposition of free will explains that it is possible to do something so bad egregious that the path of making amends and repentance is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back to where they once were.
We understand this; there is an old folk saying that the axe forgets; but the tree remembers, meaning that the person who hurts another forgets but the person who gets hurt will not. Someone abusive can reform themselves, regret their actions, and resolve never to hurt another person again, and they should do all those things! But the point is, they can only hope to find a new path; they can never return to their old one, and that’s what happened to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s government enslaved, tortured, and murdered people, particularly children; justice itself required that he be prevented from making amends.
Pharaoh was so far down his path of madness and violence that he could not see or hear his people suffering, and his adviser’s pleas fell on deaf ears:
הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – “Do you not see that Egypt is already lost?” (10:7)
Contemporary psychology might call this a form of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling you experience when two of your beliefs are in conflict. When confronted with challenging new information, people may seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information, or convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. We can lie to ourselves to justify bad decisions and hypocrisy.
Pharoah was determined to hold onto his power over his Jewish subjects, but this was at odds with his duties to the Egyptian people who were suffering. These beliefs were incompatible, but Pharoah would not address the systemic issue and let the Jewish People go; he would only ever ask Moshe to remove the symptoms of the plague at hand.
Where was Pharaoh’s free will? Where is ours? Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous.
The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house. R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that we can all too easily become prisoners to our own pride on a microcosmic level.
It’s not so difficult to imagine becoming so entrenched in a worldview that you get tunnel vision and can’t change course.
R’ Yisrael Salanter says that the first time you do something wrong, it’s a sin. When you repeat it again, it seems permitted. When you do it the third time, it can feel like a mitzvah!
R’ Shimshon Pinkus suggests that this is the definition of the Rosh Hashana blessing to be the head, and not the tail – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב. It’s a wish for an intentional year, with conscious and constant course corrections, because if today’s actions are based on yesterday’s decisions, you end up being your own tail!
As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, you must consciously choose it daily.