Moses’ Mission & Pharaoh’s Free Will


Moshe Ben-Chaim


I thank my friend Abe for raising this issue last Shabbos, Rabbi Reuven Mann for his insights, and Rabbi Pesach for directing me to essential sources on this matter.  



Two Purposes of the Plagues


Exod. 7:1-5:

“And God said to Moses, ‘Recognize, I have positioned you as a judge to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh to send the Children of Israel from his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, [1] and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will place My hand to Egypt and I will take out My hosts, My people the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt with [2] great judgments. And Egypt will know that I am God when I stretch forth My hand on Egypt and I take out the Children of Israel from their midst.”


God instructs Moses to speak to Pharaoh that he should free the Jews. God tells Moses that he knows Pharaoh will not free them, as He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. God states the goal of hardening Pharaoh is to create wonders in Egypt, that Egypt will know God. One goal is for [1] Egypt’s edification and hopefully, repentance. The verse also indicates that there is another goal, [2] “great judgments”. What are these “judgments”?


(An important principle is spelled out by the Sforno on Exod. 7:3. He states that God’s plagues are to allow Egypt to “recognize His greatness and goodness and repent in a truthful repentance”. We must recognize God’s kindness in such an act: Man sins, and is justly punished. However, before meting out punishments, God educates the Egyptians to their sin via the plagues. He does one more act to afford the sinners a path to repentance, and to circumvent any punishment. We learn that God works additional kindness and gives man opportunities to correct his ways, before receiving punishment, or the loss of his soul.)


Just prior to the eighth plague, the Plague of Locusts, the Torah reiterates these two goals:


Exod. 10:1-2 :

“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh because I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order [1] that I place these signs of Mine in his midst. And in order to speak in the ears of your son and your grandson that which I have [2] mocked Egypt, and My signs which I have placed in them, and they shall know that I am God.”


(Before proceeding, I wish to clarify the term “mock”. When applied to, or used by God, we cannot understand it as God expressing human characteristics of derision. To “laugh at”, or to “mock”, in connection with God, means He is assured of the sinner’s downfall. So “certain” is God, it is as if He laughs, like a human would when he warns another of a negative result, yet the other person does not heed the warning, and inevitably suffers. The one who warned will say, “I told you so”, as if to laugh at the ignorance of the other. God is said to “mock” Egypt, as their downfall is inevitable. God’s warnings and knowledge are absolute, so one is wise to follow God exactly. Egypt didn’t, so their devastation was certain.)


Here we see a new point, a “mocking” of Egypt, explained as God’s withholding Pharaoh from repenting - the hardening his heart. Rashi says this means a laughing of sorts. Ramban says, “I (God) laugh at him (Pharaoh) that I harden his heart, and do vengefulness in him...” From these two verses, we learn two distinct purposes in the 10 plagues: Verse 10:1 teaches: [1] that God multiply His wonders for Egypt to learn of Him, and verse 10:2 teaches: [2] that the Jews repeat this to their descendants that God removes Pharaoh’s (man’s) ability to repent, and that He and His miracles are made known. Clearly, Moses continuously approaches Pharaoh, knowing all too well that Pharaoh will not free the Jews. But Moses is commanded by God to do so, as God’s purpose is to [1] publicize His name and [2] demonstrate His justice as meted out in Pharaoh’s inability to repent.


This 2nd point is not too well known. The plagues’ spectacular nature attracts our emotions to the visual phenomena. However, as 10:2 states, God also wished to “mock” Egypt. He desired that this principle of withholding repentance become clear. The Torah commentaries state, (paraphrased) “ is unusual that a man can face such plagues of Hail, Locusts, and the like, and still remain obstinate. Man’s nature is to be terrified, not to maintain his stubbornness.” Such a steadfast attitude, even after receiving blow upon blow, is not natural for man, and must be by God’s word. Pharaoh’s resistance is to be a prime focus of the plagues. Moses’ mission is to bring out into the open this aspect of God’s justice: when man is too far-gone, God will restrain him from repenting. The plagues are to demonstrate how God does not allow a terribly corrupt person to repent. Intuitively, we would think that any man who sins, should be afforded the ability to repent. Why then in such a deviant person, does God withhold repentance? What is the justice in this restraint?




Questions on the Loss of Repentance
1) I his laws of Repentance, chapter 5, Maimonides teaches that man is always the cause of his free will. If so, what did God do to Pharaoh that prevented him from freeing the Jews and from repenting? How does God “harden” Pharaoh’s heart?


2) If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and therefore, Pharaoh does not free the Jews, is it just that God punish Pharaoh?


3) In his Laws of Repentance, chapter 6, Maimonides states that a person may sin a very evil sin, or sin many times, until the sentence from God will be to remove his ability to repent, and that the sinner die in his sin which he did knowingly with his will at the outset. Maimonides states that Pharaoh’s stubbornness is an example of this principle. What is the justice in this principle of “removal of repentance”?


4) In law 6:3 of his Laws on Repentance, Maimonides repeats eight times that the sinner sinned “on his own”. What is Maimonides driving at? Ramban too states in Exod 7:3 that Pharaoh was punished with the loss of his repenting ability, as he initially sinned with his “own free will”. How does this help us understand God’s justice?


5) Ramban offers two reasons for the justice of Pharaoh’s inability to repent. One reason given is that Pharaoh’s repentance would not have been genuine, but merely a tactic to remove the ever increasing pain of each successive plague. As the plagues progressed, Ramban teaches that Pharaoh became more inclined to free the Jews, and he would have, after the fifth plague. However, God removed his ability to repent, and he did not free them. We must ask: If Pharaoh’s repentance would not have been genuine, then what is the difference if he does or doesn’t verbalize his repentance? Why does God deem it necessary that Pharaoh not utter his repentance, if it would be meaningless, as Ramban states?


6) In law 6:2, Maimonides says that repentance acts as a “shield” against punishment. Does Maimonides’ statement have bearing on this Ramban above? Is repentance an absolute protection against punishment, and therefore God “had” to prevent Pharaoh from uttering even ungenuine words?



The Plagues’ Purpose: A Point of No Return
Despite Pharaoh’s inability to concede to Moses’ demand, Maimonides states that Moses’ repeated approach to Pharaoh is to teach an important lesson: “In order to make known to those who enter the world, that when God holds back repentance from the sinner, he is not able to repent, but [rather] he dies in his evil that he initially committed with his own will.” We are taught a crucial lesson: Man can sin to the point of no return.


Part of our human design - our free will - allows us to steep ourselves in corruption, to the point that we can no longer extricate ourselves. This was God’s lesson to the world through restraining Pharaoh from repenting. He is the prime example of man’s ability to reach a point with no hope for repentance. God publicized Pharaoh’s corruption as an act of kindness to “all others who enter the world”, as Maimonides states. God teaches an invaluable lesson. If we forfeit this lesson, tragically, we can lose our eternal life.



Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart
There are a few ways to understand God’s restraint on man’s ability to repent: Man reaches the point of no return, so God merely “reflects” man’s own corruption by withholding an ungenuine repentance. Rabbi Mann suggested a second theory: that man can do some form of repentance, but God does not allow him, as God’s mercy grants repentance to man, but only up to a point, and no further. Accordingly, man is punished for the sins he initially committed on his own. God is kind to allow man repentance, but God determines for how long repentance remains available. So we must look at God’s ultimate restraint on repentance in an opposite light: It is not a cruelty that He removes repentance, but a kindness that He tolerates sinners for so long. According to theory #1, man sins to the point where he is completely and irrevocably corrupt. He has the ability to go through the motions of repenting to avoid pain, but God does not allow him this right. In this case, God mirrors the sinner’s exact corruption - he cannot truly repent, so God does not allow the act of a useless repentance.



Ramban: Preventing Ungenuine Repentance
Ramban indicates that repentance is a shield against punishments - the question is how. To reiterate, Ramban’s second answer for God restraining Pharaoh from repenting is as follows: “Pharaoh’s repentance would not have been genuine, but merely a tactic to remove the ever increasing pain of each successive plague.” Therefore, he was not allowed to repent. Had he repented - even for this wrong reason - Ramban indicates it would have been effective in some manner. Thus, God prevented his repentance. How may we explain this Ramban?


Discussing this issue with Rabbi Mann, we agreed as follows: Had God allowed Pharaoh to repent an ungenuine repentance, Pharaoh would justly deserve continued plagues, as the plagues’ purpose of Pharaoh recognizing God would not be realized. However, Egypt would see Pharaoh “repenting” and would have a gripe against God’s justice. They would not know that Pharaoh repented a false repentance, and would feel God is unjust to continue plaguing Egypt. We may suggest this explanation for the Ramban: for this reason, God did not allow Pharaoh’s false impression of repentance. Such repentance would be of no use to Pharaoh’s perfection, but it mattered to others, to Egypt. Rabbi Mann stated that Moses too was concerned that if God justly killed the Jews when they sinned with the Golden Calf, Egypt would say that God failed and smote his people in the desert. Due to the concern that all mankind recognize God as just, Moses asked God, “Why should Egypt say, ‘with evil He took them out of Egypt to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from off the face of Earth...” (Exod. 32:12) Moses did not desire Egypt to possess a false impression of God. What perfection Moses displays...even after hundreds of years of bondage, Moses has concern for God’s reputation in his oppressors’ eyes. Moses teaches that we must be concerned that God’s reputation be completely just. We care that all mankind obtain the truth.



Maimonides: Free Will and a Hardened Heart - a Contradiction?
Maimonides states in his Laws of Repentance, chapter 5, God never removes one’s free will. He calls this a “great fundamental”. This makes sense, as the Torah is a system where ‘reward and punishment’ is a cornerstone. Thus, man must always be the sole cause of his actions. How then do we understand Maimonides’ theory on God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? In his Laws of Repentance 6:3, Maimonides writes, “And it is possible that man sin a great sin, or many sins, until the judgment is given before the True Judge that the punishment for this sinner on these sins that he did with his will and his knowledge, is that repentance is prevented from him, and he is not allowed permission to return from his evil so that he should die and expire in his sin that he did...Therefore it is written in the Torah, ‘and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.’ Since he sinned initially by himself, and did evil to the Jews living in his land, as it says, ‘come, let us be wise’, Judgment was passed to prevent repentance from him, until punishment was exacted from him. Therefore, God hardened his heart.”


If free will is a fundamental, how can God seemingly violate this principle by preventing Pharaoh from repenting?


Free will is always under man’s control. But free will “to do what”? This is the key point: it is the free will to “select evil or good” that God places in man’s hand unconditionally. However, God will - in extreme cases - remove our free will to decide another matter: repentance. Eight times Maimonides stresses that man chooses to do good or evil, of “his own will.” He wished to clarify this point that free will is never taken away from man in this single area of choosing good or evil. Man will always be the sole cause of this choice. The Torah says this openly, (Deut. 30:15, 19) “See I place before you today, life and good, death an evil...and choose life.” Moses tells the people that they may choose between good and evil. This is the area where man is always in control. But in the area of repenting, if man already selected evil, and corrupts himself so grievously, God will prevent his free will from selecting repentance, “so he may die and expire in the sin that he did.”


There is no contradiction in Maimonides’ words. God gives man free will to do good and evil, and never removes this freedom. In one area however, God does compromise man’s free will: the area of repentance. Restricting Pharaoh from repenting does not equate to God making him sin. Pharaoh sinned of his own free will, and so grievously, that God’s justice demands he be removed from the system of repentance. Had Pharaoh been free to repent, he would avoid punishment he truly deserved. Maimonides argues with Ramban and Sforno on this point. Maimonides holds Pharaoh’s repentance would have been genuine. This brings us to our next question.


If Pharaoh’s repentance would be a genuine, why did God not allow him to repent? God allows others to repent! Perhaps it is possible that man sin with so much evil, that the normal repentance does not outweigh the evil. Let me explain: In normal cases, man sins, but then it is possible that his remorse for his evil is so genuine, that he is in fact not the same person who sinned. He has complete regret, and resigns himself to never sin this sin again. This is true repentance, when the new state of good in man completely erases any taint of the evil formerly held on to. As man learns the fault of his crimes, and sees clearly how hurtful his action was to himself or others, he now regrets his actions. In such a case, God completely forgives man, and “none of his sins will be remembered.” (Ezekiel 18) But it can also happen, that a person sins, and repents, but any repentance does not completely correct his evil. Repentance can only correct a person up to a point. Repentance can be an injustice, if someone sins so harshly, and would be let off. Just as free will to select good or evil is an institution that God never compromises, so too repentance is always accepted before God. Maimonides states this in law 6:2. This being so, the only solution is to remove repentance so Pharaoh and those like him pay for their crimes. It would be unjust to allow Pharaoh to escape punishment through repentance. How odd it may sound, repentance is not just in this case. The basic concept is that God forgives man, but only up to a certain level of corruption. Man may exceed forgiveness - a point of no return.



Sforno is of another opinion. He states that had Pharaoh desired to, he could have repented, as “there is nothing preventing him.” If this is so, how does Sforno understand the verse that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”? Sforno explains this as God giving Pharaoh the ability to ‘tolerate the plagues’. As Sforno states, if God did not harden his heart, Pharaoh would have freed to Jews, but not out of a desire to subject his will to God, performing a true, complete repentance. Pharaoh would have freed the Jews only to avoid any further pain, “and this is not repentance at all” as Sforno says. Sforno differs from Maimonides and Ramban, in that he contests that God ever inhibits one’s path back to God via repentance. Sforno quotes Ezekiel 18:23, “Do I really desire the death of the wicked, so says God? Is it not in his repenting from his path and that he live?” Sforno proves from this verse that God always desires, and makes available, one’s repentance. God did not remove repentance from Pharaoh, as suggested by Ramban and Maimonides.



In summary, Moses’ mission was twofold: He was to assist in delivering the Plagues so Egypt and the Jews would recognize God. An idolatrous culture would be shown false, and God’s system of reward and punishment would be made clear. Additionally, some of our Rabbis teach that Pharaoh’s reluctance was publicized to teach mankind that we have the ability to sink into sin, so far, that we have no way of removing ourselves.


It is then so crucial that we all examine our ways, and not forfeit a true, eternal life, due to temporal emotional satisfaction, or false ideas.


For further reading of the original sources, see Maimonides’ “Laws of Repentance”, chapters V and VI; Maimonides’ introduction to Ethics of the Fathers, the “Shmoneh Perakim”, Chapter VIII, and sources noted herein.