- Why does Hashem harden Pharaoh's heart?
- And why does He then punish Paroh (Pharaoh) when it's HASHEM who repeatedly hardened Paroh's heart?
It all connects to the paradoxical concept of bechirah chofsheet – free choice.
What Does "Free Choice" Really Mean?
Human bechirah goes far beyond that of animal bechirah.
Animals don't have bechirah. A hyena cannot decide to skip eating a fresh carcass just because it wasn't properly slaughtered.
Even with their offspring, animals care for them out of instinct. Animal sentimentalists don't like to hear this, but many species either abandon or eat their young when they feel the environment won't support them or when they sense their newborns are weak.
But human bechirah goes even further.
In order to have real bechirah, a person must have the ability to either do wonderful healing acts or cruel destructive acts.
This includes the ability to destroy oneself – not just physically in This World, but to actually destroy one's soul and eliminate any chance of obtaining even a tiny smidgen of bliss in the Next World.
In other words, to enable true bechirah, a person must have the ability to NOT do teshuvah...even if they want to.
And this chilling truth explains the dynamic between Hashem and Paroh.
When You Cannot Even Move to Save Your Life
In fact, during the Plague of Hail, Hashem sent Moshe Rabbeinu to tell Paroh that everyone should move inside.
Whoever remains outside would be killed.
The Brisker Rav explains that even though these giant fiery hailstones could certainly break through roofs, Hashem set things up so that the roofs would provide protection.
Only those foolish enough to remain outside would be killed.
Then Hashem caused a weird reaction in the Egyptians (who'd decided themselves into a state where teshuvah was impossible).
If the Egyptians feared the hailstones, they wouldn't be able to go inside!
They lost the ability to move, even an obvious move for their own self-protection.
Instead, Hashem decided to make their hearts so hard that when they saw the hailstones, they'd say, "It's not for real. It can't be."
And that's exactly what happened.
As it states in Shemot 9:20, only those who feared Hashem (and not the hailstones) retained the ability to access their free choice and protect themselves by ducking into a building.
Rav Pincus explains that when a person can no longer move spiritually, his state is called Choshech Mitzrayim (Darkness of Egypt, the 9th Plague). He quotes Shemot 10:23: "No man could arise from his place."
So a person who falls into "a state of total immobility" is "like Pharaoh and the Egyptians at that time."
Rav Pincus likens it to incurring a massive debt without ever getting one's finances together. Then when the time comes to pay up, the debtor has nary a penny with which to even start returning the massive debt.
This can be experienced on a less sinister level, explain Rav Pincus, like when a person damages his capability of kavanah in davening to the point that he can no longer daven Shemoneh Esrei.
Even on the day of his wedding while davening Mincha at the Kotel, a groom may discover that despite is best intentions, he was not able to daven this all-important Mincha with kavanah.
It's because of all the previous Shemoneh Esreis without kavanah.
Rav Pincus says this is the reason why some people fly out of shul the minute the davening ends. It's as if the shul spits them out do to their repeated lack of desire.
On page 115, Rav Pincus states:
The power of free choice gives man the frightening ability to chain himself and throw away the key.
Despite his appalling miserliness, this mohel always conducts a brit milah completely free of charge. A brit milah was always the exception to his utter lack of generosity.
After refusing to accept anything from the demon father, the demon father finally opens a cabinet containing the mohel's "keys," and tells the mohel that he can have these keys since they don't really belong to the demon because they originally belong to the mohel.
After getting his "keys" back, mohel then returns to normal society and is indeed able to generously give tzedakah after that.
And therein lies the solution to recover the ability to do teshuvah even when you've destroyed that ability.
(See? In Judaism, there is never despair! Even from the Point of No Return, you can still return IF you REALLY want to!)
Teshuvah from Love Fixes Everything
Even if in the extremely rare instance that Hashem doesn't want you back, your pursuing of Hashem's Will can turn everything around for the best.
Teshuvah from fear is still a million times better than not doing teshuvah at all.
However, if one has reached the Point of No Return, if one is stuck in Choshech Mitzrayim (whether it's the guy who can't daven or a complete rasha like Paroh), the key to getting unstuck is teshuvah from love.
Teshuvah from fear:
Giving someone money only after being threatened with a big stick.
Teshuvah from love:
Giving someone money because you really want to give it.
- Teshuvah from fear is Hashem's Act.
- Teshuvah from love is completely your act.
Rav Pincus states that while teshuvah from fear can be eliminated, teshuvah from love can never be taken away since that type of teshuvah belongs to the person.
Hashem will never take it away from him because that would contradict the principle of free choice.
How to Free Yourself from the Paralyzing Plague of Darkness
When a person is in one of those low states where he feels nothing is moving for him, his goal at that time should not be to change his deeds.
Rather it should be change himself, his inner being.
And this is where it gets a bit confusing, but still doable.
Rav Pincus presents the example of someone who wants to get out of his distraction and start learning seriously out of fear for his future (maybe the fear of getting a bad shidduch or no shidduch, getting a bad reputation or a lackluster portion in the World to Come, etc.).
So he commits to learning 5 hours straight with passion.
Rav Pincus says that is changing one's deeds, not one's self.
However, if a person works to develop a feeling of love for Torah, an appreciation for the value of Torah itself, this changes his whole approach to learning. In that case, a person should decide to come even just 5 minutes early to learn and then stay 5 minutes later.
That is changing one's self.
Because it demonstrates a thirst for learning. When you love something, when you crave it, you can't wait to get it! And then you don't want to leave it.
Superficially, it looks like both are changing deeds only.
But when a person makes a mental shift in his attitude and decides to come early to learning (or davening for that matter) and leave later, that reflects his own self.
NOTE: It's even more beneficial to read the whole thing in Rav Pincus's own words, the section called "How Far Free Choice Reaches," pages 109-122.
Final Thoughts & Plan of Action
5 minutes earlier and 5 minutes later!
This is something you run across again and again in Judaism.
BABY STEPS MATTER.
No one should scoff at small steps in the right direction.
Your smallest toddling step in Hashem's direction is very precious to Hashem.
So tachlis, what can you do if you find yourself immobilized in Choshech Mitzrayim?
I believe it's to consider your soul's real desire:
- Where do you want to go?
- Who do you want to be?
- Why do you want to go there & be different in that way?
- And how can you express that new and better desire?
And if you do find yourself in that frightening place where teshuvah from fear no longer exits, consider that rather than it means Hashem is rejecting you...
...consider that maybe it's a sign that Hashem cherishes you so much, He wants you to do teshuvah from love so He can pour upon you all the reward and closeness that comes from teshuvah from love.