Writing about free will, the Rambam worries about passages in Tanach that may lead people (incorrectly, he insists) to conclude that we ourselves do not control whether we are good or evil; God does all that. For example, when God says השמן לב העם הזה ואזניו הכבד ועיניו השע—“Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes.”; or when Moshe says about Sichon כי הקשה ה’ אלקיך את רוחו ואמץ את לבבו למען תתו בידך—“because God hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart in order to give him into your hand.” Another example, of course, is in our parashah, when God hardens the pharaoh’s heart.
It sounds very much like God simply determines that Sichon will “work” a certain way, because God’s plan is for him to attack the Jewish people; God seems to make a similar determination about the pharaoh, and, later, about the Jewish people as a whole. How does this “jive” with free will?
We have heard people say that the actions of “regular” individuals are free, but the actions of political leaders and entities are in God’s hands. That seems to be a direct response to this issue—one that notes that in each case cited by the Rambam, the evildoer in question is either a political leader or an entire people; it is not, however, the Rambam’s. The Rambam’s response is that this is a punishment for the misuse of free will. This is, after all, his chapter on teshuvah. He writes that beyond a certain point, teshuvah becomes impossible, and then God “forces” one to be bad to prevent him from doing teshuvah and escaping his punishment. The Jewish people, he claims, had worshipped idols too much by the time that the conversation above took place. Sichon had simply done too much evil. As for the pharaoh, writes the Rambam—it was his free will when he said הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה—“Let us deal wisely with them so that they do not multiply.”
Nechama Leibowitz seems to agree with the Rambam:
At the beginning,,.man is free to choose any path of action he desires…. But as soon as he has made his first choice, then the opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced. The more he persists in the first path of his choosing, shall we say, the evil path, the harder will it become for him to revert to the good path, even though his essential freedom of choice is not affected. In other words, it is not the Almighty who has hampered his freedom and made the path of repentance difficult. He has, by his own choice and persistence in evil, placed obstacles in the way leading back to reformation.
This all makes sense, but there is a very interesting issue with the Rambam’s statement that, at first blush, may look like an embarrassing error: the “free statement” of the pharaoh that the Rambam gives is not made by the same pharaoh whose heart is later hardened. The pharaoh who makes the statement about dealing wisely with the Jews dies some time after Moshe leaves Egypt, and by the time Moshe returns, he is dealing with a different pharaoh.
In some ways, this ties back to the interpretation about peoples and political leaders. Perhaps the message is that while individual evil is generally possible to rein in, political evil easily spirals out of the control of anybody, including leaders. After all, how often do we see a political leader make a “decision” because any other decision would simply get him deposed (or worse)? To what degree are political leaders actually in control of their decisions?
If we consider peoples, this clarifies our picture somewhat. A century ago, the US had a strong culture of freedom, for example. More so than in other parts of the world, people here were responsible and self-reliant, and valued their autonomy. But after a century of public tolerance of progressive control over government in general and schools in particular, there is far less of that culture today. One can talk until he is blue in the face about the encroachments of new legislation on liberties formerly held dear; one can even try to get elected to political office to roll back certain developments. None of that is likely to be popular, or to help. The heart of America has been hardened. Congress could, theoretically, within a day or two, pass a law eliminating the entire government bureaucracy; practically, as things stand now, that cannot happen. In the language of the Rambam, a century of sin may have been enough to bring us to the point where teshuvah is impossible.
It is not yet clear whether this is fully the case yet; we are so close to the brink that we cannot tell which side of it we are on. The behavior of our national security agencies lately has made it abundantly clear that the fight for teshuvah at this point would be a bitter one. On the other hand, although much of the citizenry is apathetic, there still are angry citizens, and those citizens may still be willing to fight hard enough. Time should tell.
The Rambam knew the Torah far too well to have made a mistake; we believe his message to be that when we talk about evil deeds spiraling out of control and precluding the possibility of teshuvah, we are talking about nations. The pharaoh, even with his advisors saying “Can’t you see Egypt has been lost?”, has no choice but to press on. Sometimes, the free-will acts that set nations on a terrible path were committed by prior generations; later generations, with a hardened heart, push that agenda forward with less and less control.
After the morning blessings, we say a paragraph (really part of the last morning blessing) that includes the phrase ואל תשלט בנו יצר הרע—“and let our evil inclination not control us.” May we, as individuals and as a people, make good choices and retain control over our fates.
1 הלכות תשובה פרק ו
2 Yeshayahu 6:10
3 Dvarim 2:30
4 Shmot 1:10
5 Shmot 2:23
6 Shmot 10:7