At the conclusion of each day of creation (with the exception of day 2 – not a discussion for now), Hashem reflects on His deeds of the day and gives each a stamp of approval. Yet at the end of it all, going into shabbos, He raises His Heksher to superglatt and says that it is vary good. And the sages want to tell us that this concluding compliment was reserved particularly for that negative drive within and without us. While at the end of the parsha, Hashem wants to destroy the world because man had become so corrupt by his evil thoughts.
In the beginning… Hashem only ever intended to create in order to give good. But how to do it in the most perfect way was the challenge, for Hashem does not settle for second best. In particular, to simply bestow good without restraint would be as if to give us charity, and it was understood to Him that this would not be the greatest good. Thus as an outgrowth of His loving kindness He harnessed His power of restraint and justice, and paired it up to serve His intentions to give. So in His infinite wisdom, He decreed that life should be divided into two stages one to earn and one to receive one’s earnings.
Through our successful use of our freewill, we can elevate ourselves to truly display the divine image within us that we were all created in. And just like a mountain climber, after all his faithful efforts, can blissfully enjoy the magnificent views he has achieved, so will we bask in the level of completeness we have attained through overpowering our negative drive with our positive drive. What is more, is that just like the parable of the mountain climber, or any aspiring artist or performer, we do not have to wait until the finish line to enjoy the fruits of our labours, but every further step upwards offers a greater vies , and every level of excellence brings us true fulfillment in this world.
While we are on this point, it is germane to note that this is one of the unique aspects of Judaism; namely, that spirituality is also in this world, and even moreso, so are its fruits. Perhaps other doctrines are not so daring to offer any promises in this world, since they lack the confidence to deliver, but we who stood at mount Sinai, who experienced the Hand of the Creator, who are the children of prophets, and holy sages and kings, are solid in our eternal capability to achieve brilliance and holiness in ourselves, even in our challenged generation we find the divine spark alive within the Jewish nation if we seek it out.
Now that we know a little about Creation, we need to learn a bit about ourselves. In order for us to truly earn our keep, we would have to exercise some aspect of our self to attain it. So we are presented with two options (of course with many shades of grey, but ultimately it is a gradient from good to bad) – Hashem’s will for us on one side, and everything else on the other. One ingredient still remained to be tossed into the chullent of creation, that is in order for the challenge to be real, either option would have to be equally compelling to us; and how would doing evil/not what Hashem wants become appealing? Enter the evil-urge a.k.a. the yetser hara.
Now we can understand why Hashem praised the negative drive as very good – because it brought His plan for creation into a reality. Of course, it is detestable, and worthy of punishment when we go after our bad urges, nonetheless, their existence is central and fundamental to life itself.
With this brief, (albeit heavy) introduction, we can better understand a fascinating topic in this week’s parsha. When Hashem tells Moshe to tell Pharoah to release the Jews, He tell Moshe that he will harden Pharoah’s heart, and resist. And so we see, that after the pressure of each plague is released, Pharoah recapitulates and returns to adamantly refuse setting the Jews free.
All the commentators are up in arms over what appears to be Hashem interceding and taking away Pharoah’s freewill, for as we just discussed, the maintenance of our free will is the purpose of creation. There are two main camps as to how to explain this. Rashi, the Rambam, along with others, versus the Ramban, and others.
Rashi says that, Hashem is telling Moshe, not that He will harden Pharoah’s heart, rather, that He will allow him to harden his own heart, and fall into his own abyss of evil. And why does Hashem intend to do this? Rashi, brings verses which support his view that when the goyim act cruelly to us, Hashem uses them as scapegoats to reveal His great power, and glorify His just might through them. And the verse 19: 16 supports Rashi “I could have destroyed you entirely..but on account of this I have left you standing: in order to show you My power and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world” And we know ourselves from the story, that this is exactly what the Pesach story is.
The Rambam also lists Pharoah as an example of one beyond the hope of repentance, for he is so entrentched in his evil. On a deeper level, Rabbi Dessler explains, that our struggle to properly use our freewill is comparable to a battle. There may be many troops on each side, and the warring parties may have much depth, but the essence of the battle occurs on the front line. And when the front moves forward or back, the rest of the campaign follows suit.
So too with each of us – in each area of our life we have a specific area where we are challenged. For instance, to kill, and rob is well beneath most of us, and hardly a temptation. On the other side, never losing our patience with difficult people, not allowing forbidden speech to leave our lips, or to greet each person with an appropriate smile may be a tad beyond us in our current position. Thus Pharoah, was allowed to be overcome by his negative drive so much that it no longer was within his grasp to overcome it – in other words, his heart was hardened.
The Ramban initially offers a similar explanation then reverts to the basic reading of the verse, namely, not that Hashem gave Pharoah the liberty to destroy himself, but that Hashem really did interfere and harden his heart. But what about the all-sacred freewill?
Answers the Ramban, that Hashem’s interference was not to retract his freewill, but on the contrary, to retain it. How so? Rabbi Dessler elaborates, that Hashem will send us wake up calls to do tshuva (improve our ways), and sometimes these taps on the shoulder can come in a most unpleasant form. (An interesting hint to this is found in the Holy tongue – that the word for ‘awaken/become aware is an Ayin then a Reish, in reverse this spells evil or bad. In other words what from the gound up is experienced by us as seemingly negative is viewed from the sender’s perspective above as a wake up call.)
The tricky balance that Hashem must find when tapping us on the shoulder, is not to take away our freewill in the process. It is very easy for one in a position of power to strong arm others to heed to his wishes – this happens amongst friends, marriages, work environments, etc. In some cases the persuader has no interest in maintaining the freewill of the recipient, but when the influencer has the self-actualization of the other at heart, such as parents to children, and of course, the Creator to His creation, then the persuasion must not be too overwhelming.
This was the concern with Pharoah. Since the plagues were so brutal, and their consequences overwhelming, coupled with a fierce social pressure from the Egyptian nation at large, Pharoah’s arm was being twisted until he couldn’t help but to cry out surrender. Thus Hashem had to rebalance the scales by giving Pharoah the wherewithal (as my parents would say – the intestinal fortitude, a.k.a. guts) to maintain an independent capacity to make a decision from his own heart. That how the Ramban explains ‘and I will harden his heart.>
Let us all try to learn from our negative role models as well as our positive ones. We all have a precious treasure called freewill, and we can accomplish wonders with it if we use it well, the world and its fullness can be ours, and we can make ourselves as angels, or at least great righteous people walking on the earth. Let us not harden our hearts like Pharoah, but strengthen them to compel us to strive ever higher, especially by learning from the good in others, or our forefathers. Let us all try to be awake and responsive to all the notes and taps that heaven send to us, and rise to the call.
Wishing you a lovely shabbos,
-Beth Shifra Crew