One of the philosophical themes which appears in Parshas Vaeyrah is
that of free will. Chazal tell us that everything that happens to us is controlled by
Hashem, except for yiras shamaim - i.e. a person's fear of Heaven. Whether to do right or
wrong is entirely up to the individual himself and in no way predestined. In this way we
are able to grow and acquire a reward for our efforts.
Pharoah was given the opportunity to believe in Hashem. He asked for a
sign and Aharon threw down the staff which turned into a snake. At that point Pharoah
demonstrated that the magicians and all the people in Egypt, even children, could do the
same thing and he refused to believe in Hashem. Horav Ch. Levenstein in his work Ohr
Yechezkel asks why did Hashem pick such a demonstration which was so easily copied as his
big "proof" to Pharoah? He answers that the way of Hashem is to give one a trial
with the opportunity to go astray - if that is one's choice. The situation is never that
clear cut that one must choose the proper way. In that case there would be no growth, no
satisfaction, no reward. The trial was an easy one for Pharoah; he saw the tremendous
heavenly intervention on behalf of Moshe getting into his palace, etc. (see Medrash) and
could have recognized Hashem even if his magicians performed the sign with their black
magic. But he didn't and in his wickedness, he failed.
Many times we ourselves wait complacently until we clearly see Hashem's
hand in order to change our ways. We want an incontestable sign, and then we'll listen.
But Hashem hides himself in this world and it is our duty to follow the correct path in
seeking Him despite the fact he is hidden.
The obvious question arising out of this discussion is how, if one has
free will to do good or evil, was Hashem able to harden Pharoah's heart? This implies that
Pharoah's heart and will were in Hashem's hands, not his own. Rashi's view is that when
Pharoah was wicked and "poked fun" at Hashem, he showed that his repentance
would never be complete and if Hashem would not harden his heart he would certainly do
insincere repentance on the outside but not in his heart. Then when Hashem punishes him
justly, the onlookers would not understand and would think that this is the way Hashem
treats the repentant! Therefore Hashem hardened his heart so he would not even do the
insincere outward repentance and when Hashem punishes him everyone will see and take the
now obvious lesson to heart.
The Rambam states that sometimes a person sins so greatly, that his
punishment is that in heaven they take away his opportunity to do teshuvah (repentance) so
he remains in sin and is eternally lost, detached from Hashem. This happened after Pharoah
refused to acknowledge Hashem after the first five makos. Ramban's first explanation is
similar to this, but he offers another thought as well. Hashem's intention in hardening
Pharoah's heart was to enable him to bear the suffering of the plagues and not repent out
of plain fear. He should be able to have proper honor for Hashem and repent on that
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