Hashem Does Not Withdraw Freewill

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

With Pesach around the corner, I am stepping out of our usual order to study one of R. Arama’s discussions of events of yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus. His thirty-sixth sha’ar starts with a discussion of freewill, including how the Jews ended up going down to Egypt and whether Par’oh was ever denied his freewill, and moves into an analysis of the plagues. Summarizing it will take us the three slots we have left until Pesach.

Hashem Is Just and Is the Source of Justice

R. Arama starts by rejecting Rambam’s famous claim Hashem withdrew Par’oh’s freewill over the course of the plagues (Ramban had two ways to read what was happening with Par’oh; the first agreed with Rambam, based on the Torah’s changing its phrasing of Par’oh’s experience. In the earlier plagues, the Torah spoke of Par’oh’s heart “being hardened,” whereas after the fifth plague, the Torah began saying Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart).

R. Arama cannot accept Hashem would act in a way he is sure is unjust. Hashem is the source of human beings’ ability to perform justice, which must mean Hashem would never contravene justice. For example, King Shlomo’s skill at deciding which of two prostitutes was the true mother of a baby came from Hashem; Avraham objected to news of Sodom’s impending doom because Hashem is the source of all justice, could not do anything as unjust as wipe out any righteous in Sodom along with evildoers. If so—and especially since Moshe Rabbenu speaks of Hashem as Ha-Tzur tamim po’alo, the Rock, His actions are whole—human beings must always know Hashem acts correctly and well.

Respectful Searching

When some of Hashem’s acts appear out of line with such an assessment, people have the right to seek the explanation which will reveal the true justice in the situation, but not to question or criticize.  Yirmiyahu says as much in his book, 12;1, when he declares his certainty of Hashem’s righteousness before raising the topic of the success of evildoers. For R. Arama, his opening laid the groundwork for his coming questions, made clear they were a search for understanding rather than a denial of Hashem’s justice.

Granted Hashem is just, how can evildoers be allowed the success Yirmiyahu saw, was what Yirmiyahu said. (R. Arama uses a Talmudic phrase which captures the idea well, Torah hi u-lilmod ani tzarich, it is Torah and I need to learn it; in the Talmudic contexts, scholars defended seemingly intrusive acts with the phrase. The search for knowledge can justify some otherwise inappropriate choices).

Proper motivation guarantees a search will not end empty-handed, says R. Arama. Should a searcher be dissatisfied with the results, s/he should look inward, realize s/he has flaws of character or beliefs which mark him/her as more a skeptic than a searching believer.

Reasons for the Exile to Egypt

R. Arama plans to raise questions about some of Hashem’s actions, and reminds us he follows the footsteps of Yirmiyahu, fully accepts Hashem’s righteousness, seeks understanding, without any doubt of there being a valid explanation. His search matters to him also because it will help him better explain Hashem to others [the comment hints his audience had continuing questions about Divine justice, separate from the history of the Exodus].

He starts with the descent to Egypt. The Torah does not tell us any sin by Ya’akov or his family which would incur the punishment of exile and slavery in Egypt. Ramban to Bereshit 12;10 said Avraham sinned by telling Par’oh his wife was his sister, leaving her to be taken by Par’oh and possibly abused. Ramban thought Hashem punished Avraham by sentencing his descendants to exile; R. Arama thinks the punishment too far outweighs the crime to be the answer [Ramban named another factor, Avraham’s leaving Israel in the face of the famine, when he should have trusted Hashem to help him. R. Arama does not address the idea].

He is more open to the claim in Shabbat 10b, reported by Rava b. Mechasya, who heard it from R. Chama b. Gurya in Rav’s name, the brothers’ selling Yosef was punished by the exile in Egypt. He sees a match between the sin and the punishment.

Still, were the explanation correct, Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin should have been exempt, since they were not involved in Yosef’s sale. More, tradition claims the tribe of Levi was not enslaved, although they descended from one of the chief actors in the sale. Finally, the Torah never says the brothers sinned [this seems to me a technicality; the Torah never says they sinned, but the brothers themselves declare their guilt], certainly does not link the exile to their actions.

The idea of Egypt as punishment for the sale founders further when we notice Shabbat 89b, where R. Chiyya b. Abba reports R. Yochanan’s assumption Ya’akov Avinu was destined to be dragged to Egypt in chains, and Hashem did him the favor of “dragging” him with the “chains” of his love for Yosef.

Choices Have Consequences

R. Arama therefore argues the sale led to exile in Egypt, a consequence rather than a punishment. He gives the analogy of lighting a loose fire in a house; when the house burns down, we would not say it was punishment for lighting the fire. The Torah never says Hashem sent the Jews to Egypt, either; for example, when Moshe asks Edom to allow the Jews to pass through, Bamidbar 20;15, he has the messengers say our forefathers went down to Egypt.

Similarly, Yehoshu’a reviews the people’s history before he passes away—as part of his adjuration in Hashem’s Name to rededicate themselves to Hashem’s service. He also says Ya’akov and his sons went down to Egypt. The phrasing there particularly makes the point, because Yehoshu’a speaks in Hashem’s name, and Hashem took credit for all the parts of the story until then (I took Avraham from the other side of the river, I had him travel him throughout Canaan, I gave him Yitzchak, etc. Only when the story reaches Ya’akov and his sons going down to Egypt does the voice switch to saying they did it rather than Hashem).

With that perspective, he now can say Bereshit 15;13 had Hashem predict Avraham’s descendants would be strangers in a land which does not belong to them, not decree it. [R. Arama moves on to Par’oh’s supposed loss of freewill, because he is focused on that piece of the puzzle. I want to pause and point out how much he has changed our view of early Jewish history. In his world, Hashem never doomed Avraham’s descendants to four hundred years of wandering and slavery, Hashem only saw it coming, and reassured Avraham He, Hashem, would take care of them through the ordeal, which they brought on themselves by choosing, of their own freewill, to sell Yosef.

There are details he does not work out, such as Shabbat 89b’s certainty Ya’akov had to go to Egypt one way or other. I am more impressed by his commitment to freewill, and his readiness to therefore shift the “blame” for that difficult era in our national history to the Jews themselves. Were we to adopt his perspective, we would likely find other tragedies which are consequences of our actions rather than punishments from Hashem.]

Hashem Would Never Suspend Par’oh’s Freewill

His certainty of the injustice of revoking freewill forces him to confront the Torah’s apparently saying otherwise. Hashem repeatedly tells Moshe He will or has hardened Par’oh’s heart, and his servants’, to allow the plagues to continue and demonstrate Hashem’s Presence and power.

R. Arama cannot see why Hashem would ever reject sincer repentance. No just Gd, worthy of our praise and exaltation, would boast ahead of time of a plan to suspend a man or nation’s freewill, then multiply their punishments and sufferings.

Rambam’s idea Par’oh forfeited his freewill convinced many, but R. Arama harps on Hashem’s having predicted it ahead of time, when all prophets made clear Hashem never desires or rejoices in the downfall of evildoers—Hashem wants repentance.

To treat Par’oh so differently sets him apart from the greatest sinnersr of Jewish history. Hashem tells Kayin he can repent for killing his brother and (I Melachim 21;29) accepts Achav’s distress over his announced punishment as enough of a step to withhold the punishment during his lifetime. Menasheh might have been worse than Achav, is described by II Melachim 21;16 as having followed the abominations of the surrounding nations and spilled much innocent blood, yet II Divrei Ha-Yamim 33;12 tells us he eventually called out to Hashem, submitted greatly, prayed, and Hashem returned him to Jerusalem.

In another chapter, Rambam himself trumpeted the possibility of repentance for the most terrible sinners. Regarding Par’oh, he said only we cannot know how Hashem decides to withhold the possibility from some sinners in some situations. R. Arama refuses the idea, and his full-throated insistence sounds to me like he was aiming his words at the members of his own generation, who might have despaired in the face of persecutions and expulsion from Spain.

Devarim 4;30-31 records Hashem’s promise to accept our repentance when our troubles bring us to realize we need to repair our relationship with Hashem. [Those verses are not necessarily relevant to Par’oh, they are Hashem’s promise to us, His people. R. Arama assumes Hashem had to leave the same opening for Par’oh, else Hashem would be unjust].

You Have to Really Want Repentance

Ramban offered another possibility which appeals more to R. Arama. Par’oh never wanted to repent or submit to Hashem; the plagues made life too uncomfortable to stand, which would hae forced him to yield. The hardening or strengthening of Par’oh’s heart was how Hashem “helped” Par’oh hold steady on the path he really wanted.

Repentance involves a change of heart, where the plagues forced words out of Par’oh’s mouth. Hashem forced Par’oh to act externally as he intended internally (itself a bit of a punishment, a stricter standard for being released from consequences than we assume in other situations).

Rashi makes a similar point in explaining Shemot 7;3’s example of Hashem saying He will harden Par’oh’s heart. Rashi says Hashem told Moshe it is clear nations other than Israel take no pleasure in repentance, do not put their full hearts into it.

Although R. Arama seems to reject the idea—he does not see why Hashem would be such a stickler for sincerity in the first stages of repentance—and offers a different answer, I think he will come back to this one, Par’oh never achieved the kind of repentance which might have saved him. As we will see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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