"Moses Speaks to Pharaoh" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Moses Speaks to Pharaoh" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

In a divided present or in ancient Egypt — what is the cost of freedom?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


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Exodus 10:1-13:16


The Rabbi of Chelm rubbed his eyes and tried to look away from the newsfeed. “This country has never been so divided!” the voice of the web said. Then these words from the great 1970s sage Stephen Stills came to mind:

Find the cost of freedom,
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.

At Kent State University, May 4, 1970, four young people were shot dead by young people in the Ohio National Guard. It was necessary, some people said.

Then these words from the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Akiva came to mind:

Everything is foreseen, and freewill is given.
And with goodness the world is judged.
And all depends on which deeds are more numerous.

In this week’s Torah reading, we find entrapment and freedom, determinism and free will.

The Rabbi of Chelm remembers a bat mitzvah student who just hated this Torah portion: “How is it possible to blame Pharaoh for the sorrows of the Israelites in Egypt when we read: ‘Then the LORD said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the LORD’ (Exodus 10:1). Everyone tells me that now I must use my own mind and heart to make decisions. That’s so unfair! God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart 20 times!”

“Actually, it’s yin-yang: Pharaoh stiffens his own heart 10 times and God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart 10 times.”

The student looked puzzled. “Yin-yang doesn’t sound like Judaism.”

“Well, Judaism is from the Middle East, not the Middle West. Rabbi Akiva’s thinking here is close to Taoism. In the Rabbinic literature, seemingly contrary forces are often revealed to be interconnected. Here, look at this: ‘Resh Lakish teaches that when God warns someone once, twice, even a third time and that person does not repent, then and only then does God close the person’s heart against repentance. Moses warned Pharaoh five times, so the Almighty said: You have become stubborn and unyielding, therefore I am adding to your evil doing’ (Shemot Rabbah 13:1).

“And then there’s Rambam’s commentary on Rabbi Akiva: ‘Do not think that since God knows the actions that a person is coerced to perform a particular action. The matter is not so. Rather, each individually chooses what he will do. That is that which is stated: Free will is given.

The student: “Pharaoh’s own arrogance closes the door on forgiveness? That’s what is foreseen? So where is Rabbi Akiva’s free will in this portion?”

The Rabbi of Chelm: “Here — just after a final heart-stiffening, and before the 10th plague, we read in Exodus 12:2: ‘This month will be for you the first of months.’  The midrash says: ‘From this point on, the coming months will be your months, to do with them as you wish — according to your desires. In contrast, during the many days of your enslavement, your days were not your days. For those days were devoted to the work of others and according to their will. Therefore, this is the first of the months of the year for you. From this very point begins your new reality of free choice.’

“So, I have free will.”

“Yes,” the Rabbi of Chelm, said quietly. “‘Four dead in Ohio.’ Someone choose to kill those students. When Rabbi Heschel was asked about the assassination of his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, ‘God has shared life with man and He has given man freedom. A very questionable gift, and the most outstanding gift man has. Man can do anything. God does not interfere.’”

The Rabbi of Chelm, continued: “Do you know who story of the King of Nineveh? He was the king who, upon hearing the prophet Jonah calling for the people of Nineveh to repent, rent his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he declared that all his people should fast with him for three days. He was, according to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, none other than Pharaoh! After the Red Sea, he left Egypt, got a new job, and this time, did not harden his heart. We all have access to free will and repentance. Even Pharaoh.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at wolfprusan@mac.com.