Parshas Bo:
True Free Will

By Rabbi Dovid Rifkind

A nd Hashem said to Moses, "Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants. . .so that I shall place these signs of Mine in his midst. (Exodus Chap. 10 verse 1)
All the commentators attempt to explain Hashem's seemingly stripping Pharaoh of his free will by compelling him to refuse to free the Jewish People.

Maimonides (teshuva 6:3) states, "It is possible for a person to commit a severe sin or many sins until the verdict is declared by the true Judge that the sinner will be repaid for the sins he willingly and knowingly committed, by having teshuva withheld from him and he will not be given the wherewithal to repent from his evil ways in order that he will die for the sins he will commit . . .Thus it is written in the Torah, "And I shall harden Pharaoh's heart", since he initially sinned of his own accord . . . the verdict was passed to withhold (the ability to do) teshuva from him until he was repaid." Simply stated, Maimonides is telling us, the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was part of his punishment.

HaRav Mordechai Gifter SHLIT'A in his work Hirhurei teshuvaraises a few questions with this quote from Maimonides. Firstly, if the intention is that the sinner not get forgiveness, then would it not suffice for HaShem to say that he will no longer accept this person's teshuva, why the necessity to remove his ability to do teshuva ? Furthermore, Maimonides states that by removing his ability to do teshuva he will "die for his sins that he will commit," indicating that the inability to do teshuva will cause him to commit additional sins, for which he will be punished. How can one be punished for sins he was compelled to commit?

HaRav Eliyahu Dessler ZT'L in his work Michtav Eliyahu (vol.2 pp. 235-239) places Maimonides in a different perspective. That which Maimonides states that one can forfeit his ability to do teshuva is not a punishment , per se, rather it is the nature of man that once he has committed a sin numerous times, he tends to justify it. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) tells us, "One who commits a sin and repeats it, it becomes permissible to him. Explains Rav Dessler, it is this justification which impedes the sinner from doing teshuva and which compels him to sin again.

It is therefore clear why Maimonides chose Pharaoh as an example of this trait. Pharaoh, even prior to committing the sin of oppressing the Jewish People had justified it by saying, "They too may join our enemies and wage war against us and go up from the land." (Exodus 1:10) How much more so would the sin become justifiable once it had continued for some time.

With this in mind, Maimonides is now eminently understandable. Indeed HaShem would accept teshuva even from the repeat sinner, it is just that typically he won't do teshuva. It is obvious that the sinner will be held accountable even for the sins which he committed as a result of his incapacity, for this inability to do teshuva is of his making.

Using this we can further explain the terminology of Maimonides. HaRav Mordechai Gifter SHLIT'A notes that when describing one who does teshuva, he is referred to as someone "who has sinned knowingly and willingly". Yet, when Maimonides refers to the sinner who can no longer do teshuva he describes him as "one who sins willingly and knowingly" ,with the order of the descriptive terms reversed.

This reversal can be explained using Rav Dessler's interpretation. Maimonides, he explains, is pointing out the root cause of why the sinner can no longer do teshuva. This is due to the fact that he sinned "willingly and knowingly" , meaning that as a result of following his will to do evil he ended up sinning "knowingly", with full knowledge of what he was doing, since he intellectually justified the sin.

Although, we hopefully will never approach the level of Pharaoh and become one of those from which the wherewithal to do teshuva is withheld, it is nonetheless a good idea to take to heart the words of the Talmud (ibid.) that "one who commits a sin and repeats it, it becomes permissible (in his eyes).Indeed, as Reb Yisroel Salanter ZT'L quipped, after committing the sin three times it becomes a mitzvah in his eyes.

With this in mind we should constantly be cognizant of the role which our biases play and even when we feel that we are being completely objective, it would bode us well to stop and take another look at the true underpinnings of our convictions.

Published and January 16, 1997 by the Chicago Community Kollel



By Rabbi Dovid Rifkind . . . . . Shvat 5757



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