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Drash on Va’eira 2024

When Free Choice is Denied
Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I am guilty this time. The Eternal One is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.  (Exodus 9:27)

“You do not wish the death of sinners, but urge them to return from their ways and live. Until the day of death, You wait for them; You accept them at once if they return.” (from U’netaneh Tokef in Mishkan T’shuvah)

It is an enduring question: does God actually forgive all wrongdoing regardless of how egregious? If Hitler were to do t’shuvah on his deathbed, would God have forgiven him? This very question can be directed at the passages at the end of Exodus chapter 9 in this week’s parashah and at the start of Exodus 10 in next week’s parashah. As Pharoah contemplates the horrors inflicted by the plague of hail upon Egypt, he summons Moses and Aaron to him and makes a confession. He declares חָטָ֣אתִי, literally—I have sinned. He seems prepared to begin acting towards the Israelites with compassion and leniency. But only a few verses later, once the hailstorm has been lifted, he changes his mind and does not free the slaves after all.

At the start of Parashat Bo, God tells Moses to return to Pharoah’s courtroom: “For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them.” (Exodus 10:1) It is no longer Pharoah who is hardening his own heart, but rather God. The rabbis struggle mightily with this verse. After all, one of the most central principles in Judaism is that each of us are granted free will. Each of us is able to shape our lives as we wish, for good or ill. How could it be that God has now stripped Pharoah of control over his own life and has essentially made him God’s puppet? How could God’s actions possibly align with the idea that God waits for the sinner to repent each and every day?!

It is Maimonides who tackles this theological challenge most directly. He brazenly declares that it is possible to go so far down the path of sin that the opportunity for repentance is closed off. “A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing the judgment rendered before the True Judge to be that the retribution [administered to] this transgressor for these sins which he wilfully and consciously committed is that his T’shuvah will be held back. He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed.” (The Laws of T’shuvah 6:3) Elsewhere, in Éight Chapters, Maimonides notes that because Pharoah chose to enslave the Israelites and embitter their lives entirely of his own free will, God then later deprived him of free will when it came to t’shuvah.

This idea that there are some sins which are simply unforgivable is uniquely Jewish and can be troubling to those from other faith traditions, especially Christianity. But I suspect that we Jews, who have had so many wrongs inflicted upon us over the centuries, find this idea reassuring. We would not want to believe that forgiveness could come so cheaply, especially for those whose actions have caused tremendous misery. At the same time, we continue to affirm the preciousness of t’shuvah, which offers each of us the promise of a new start. We also continue to hold tight to the idea that obligation rests not with the one who has been wronged, but rather with the one who has committed the wrong.

Find more Parashat Hashavua