The Point of No Return
Chapter 6, Law 3
"It is possible that a person will sin a terrible sin or many sins to the
extent that the true Judge's justice dictates that the punishment for such a
sinner for committing such sins willingly and knowingly, is that they (i.e.,
the members of the heavenly court) withhold from him teshuva (repentance),
and they do not give him the ability to repent his wickedness, in order that
he will die and eternally perish together with his sins he committed.
"This is as G-d said through Isaiah, 'Fatten the hearts of this nation, make
its ears heavy, smear over its eyes, lest it see with its eyes and hear with
its ears, and its heart will understand, and it will repent and be healed'
(6:10). So too it is stated, 'And they mocked the messengers of G-d and
despised His word and scoffed at His prophets until the wrath of G-d rose
against His nation, till there was no healing' (II Chronicles 36:16).
Meaning, they sinned willingly and increased rebelliousness until they
became culpable of withholding from them repentance, which is the 'healing'.
"Therefore, it is written in the Torah, 'And I will harden the heart of
Pharaoh' (Exodus 4:21). Since Pharaoh sinned on his own at first and
mistreated Israel who was dwelling in his land, as it is written, 'Come let
us outsmart him [Israel]' (Exodus 1:10), logic dictated to withhold
repentance from him until he be paid back. Therefore, G-d hardened his heart.
"Now, why did G-d send to Pharaoh through Moses, saying to him, 'send and
repent,' while G-d had already said to Pharaoh that he would not send, as it
is stated, 'And you and your servants I [Moses] know [that you do not yet
fear the L-rd G-d]' (ibid. 9:30). 'Nevertheless, on account of this [did I
preserve you, in order to show you My strength and in order that you will
relate My Name in all the land]' (v. 16): In order to make known to the
inhabitants of the world (lit., 'to the comers into the world') that when
G-d withholds teshuva from a sinner, he cannot repent but will rather perish
in the wickedness that he earlier did willingly.
"So too Sichon (King of the Emorites; see Numbers 21:21-25), on account of
his sins he became guilty of withholding from him repentance., as it is
stated, 'For the L-rd your G-d hardened his spirit and made obstinate his
heart' (Deuteronomy 2:30). And so too the Canaanites on account of their
abominations, He held back from them teshuva until they battled against
Israel, as it is stated, 'For it was from G-d to harden their hearts in
preparation for the war with Israel, in order to destroy them...' (Joshua
11:20). And so too Israel in the times of Elijah, since they greatly
increased sin, G-d withheld from those 'increasers' repentance, as it is
said, 'And You turned their hearts backwards' (I Kings 18:37), meaning You
held them back from teshuva.
"It thus may be concluded (lit., 'it is found to say') that G-d did not
decree on Pharaoh to wreak evil on Israel, nor on Sichon to sin in his land,
nor on the Canaanites to act depravedly, nor on Israel to serve idols.
Rather, all of them sinned on their own and became culpable of withholding
from them repentance."
This week's very long paragraph addresses the issue the Rambam raised at the
start of this chapter. If, as he discussed earlier, man is granted free
will, how is it that many verses in Scripture state G-d withheld a person's
or a nation's ability to repent? Isn't that a denying of the person's free
choice to improve his ways? Instead, various people were forced by G-d to
remain in their sinful state, and be destroyed as a result. How is that
compatible with free will?
The Rambam's response above is quite clear. The basic point is that such is
a last resort. Very rarely does G-d go so far as to deny a person his
freedom of choice. Only one who has repeatedly and brazenly flouted G-d's
will does G-d at times force to remain in his sinful state. G-d has given up
on such a person, so to speak. And, in the case of the Egyptians, rather
than forcing them to "repent" due to the sheer agony of the plagues, G-d
though it better to show the world His great power, to use the hapless (but
thoroughly wicked) Pharaoh to demonstrate to the world once and for all just
who G-d really is.
[As I've pointed out in the past, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say
that the majority of the world believes in a single, all-powerful G-d today
because of the Exodus. The cataclysmic events of the Ten Plagues, the
splitting of the sea, and the Revelation at Sinai entered the collective
memory of mankind, never to be forgotten. G-d saw need to reveal Himself, in
all His glory, to His human subjects one time in world history -- in order
to remove the slightest doubt about His existence. And the memory of that
epochal period would not soon be forgotten. (We've discussed in the past why
it would NOT be a good idea for G-d to reveal Himself regularly to His
subjects, see Pirkei Avos 3:10.)]
One very important corollary to this is that teshuva (repentance) is really
a gift from G-d. The fact that G-d generally gives us time to reconsider our
wickedness and return to Him is an undeserved gift from Heaven. By rights,
He could destroy us right then for flouting His will. He likewise has every
right to withhold from us the ability to repent. We really owe it to G-d the
moment we defy Him. G-d does not have to "wait around" until we get around
to regretting our sins and repenting. Nor does He have to give us the free
will to change our minds altogether. It is all a Divine favor -- one G-d may
well decide to withhold if we have tried His patience too long.
Even short of actually denying us free will, G-d has many means of making
teshuva more difficult for the undeserving. If we are fortunate, Divine
Providence may actually lead us to repentance -- say we have a close call or
some other stark reminder of our mortality. The Talmud writes that when a
person suffers affliction, he should examine his ways (Brachos 5a), in order
to determine G-d's motive for afflicting him. Likewise, Rabbeinu Yonah
(Gates of Repentance II:7) writes that we should use our oncoming
signs of old age -- our graying hair (if we're fortunate enough to still
have some), as signs that our end is approaching, and to use such reminders
to return to G-d while we are yet able.
However, the gift of such heavenly messages cannot be taken for granted. G-d
may not be so patient with a sinner as to give him multiple wake-up calls.
Perhaps G-d will take us from this world suddenly, with no advance warning
allowing us time to reflect. Or who knows if we'll still have our marbles
when our end is near? Or we may simply have smothered ourselves with so much
apathy over the years that we will be unable to truly open our eyes to our
faults when our time is running short. G-d thus need not go so far as to
deny us free will -- a punishment reserved for the most heinous of sinners
-- to withhold our repentance. It may happen much less spectacularly -- and
we may even do it to ourselves.
The Rambam additionally addresses a related question. If Pharaoh really had
no free will to repent, why did Moses bother coming to him repeatedly asking
him to repent? What was the point asking of Pharaoh something G-d Himself
attested he would not do?
The Rambam answers that G-d did not really send Moses to Pharaoh for
Pharaoh's sake. Pharaoh had no choice at that point but to refuse. It was
rather to bring home this basic message to the rest of mankind. When G-d
withholds a man's repentance, no force on earth can bring him to change him
mind. No amount of plague nor suffering could change Pharaoh's mind -- no
matter how absurdly and patently irrational Pharaoh's refusal had become. He
had no choice. And G-d was going to use stubborn old Pharaoh, in all his
hysterical obsessiveness, to teach the word that lesson.
Some of the other classical commentators offer a different explanation to
this question (see Ramban and Sforno to Exodus 7:3). It does seem strange
that Moses kept returning to Pharaoh asking him to concede if Pharaoh no
longer had the ability to do so. Was it all a charade? Was Moses asking
something of Pharaoh knowing there was no way on earth Pharaoh could acquiesce?
Further, more than once Pharaoh seemed to seriously waver, see for example
Exodus 10:7-11. Was the "hardening" beginning to wear off until Pharaoh
received his next dose of insanity?
And finally, we need to understand how this heart hardening works to begin
with. Did Pharaoh know his mind was being controlled? Did he want to say
"yes" but the word "no" came out of his mouth? Or did Pharaoh at least think
he was making his own decision?
The commentators explain as follows. G-d really did not completely remove
Pharaoh's free will. G-d wasn't simply controlling Pharaoh's mind and
actions, making his mouth say "no" when he really wanted to say "yes". Nor
was He making Pharaoh think he was acting rationally when his mind was
clearly unhinged. Rather, what G-d really did, as the Torah itself attests,
was *strengthen* Pharaoh's heart (this being the actual translation of the
Hebrew phrase). Was does that mean?
Pharaoh did not truly want to repent. His entire life made it evidently
clear that he had no interest in accepting G-d's will or acting kindly
towards his subjects. There was, however, one problem. The plagues, in all
their power and fury, would have *forced* Pharaoh to repent. There is no way
a human being could have withstood that kind of torment. Pharaoh would have
repented and done everything G-d asked of him, but it would not have been
from his heart, from a sincere desire to reconcile with his Creator. It
would have been the result of the simple, instinctive human need to avoid
pain, succumbing to a Divine torture chamber. And G-d was hardly interested
in that sort of repentance.
G-d therefore strengthened Pharaoh's heart. What He did was give Pharaoh the
strength to withstand the plagues -- at least after each of them passed.
Pharaoh was thus able to remain true to his wickedness. The plagues did not
force him to succumb. He was able to live out his evil convictions -- acting
as he really did want to act -- in order that G-d could show mankind once
and for all just whom He really is.
Thus, theoretically at least, Pharaoh really could have repented had he so
truly desired -- but only if he truly wanted to make it up to his Creator.
Moses returned again and again to Pharaoh to give him the chance. But
Pharaoh, true to his colors, revealed himself to be the stubborn old fool he
has always been.
I will conclude this week's class by again pointing out the great lesson
which emerges from the Rambam's words. Teshuva is not a given. It is really
a gift from G-d. If we were fool enough to sin and defy G-d's will in the
first place, we cannot simply take for granted that we'll one day be granted
the luxury of repentance -- perhaps when we're much older and no longer
really crave the sins we fell for in our youth. We may be so fortunate -- if
G-d really feels we deserve it, but life is hardly so simple.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches us, "Repent one day before you die" (2:15). Well,
when exactly is that "one day" before we die? G-d does not tell us -- for
good reason. If G-d would be so forthcoming as to inform us of our death
dates, we would have the convenience of waiting till a few days before then
and repenting. But G-d does not grant us that luxury. We'd like to think
that our "one day" is many decades away. We have much life to live before
that -- before we have to worry about coming fact to face with our Maker.
But we don't have to look very far around us to realize that for many, that
day of death was much sooner than anyone suspected. Sure, we don't want to
live with the heavy sense of death hovering over us. But we must ever be
aware of our mortality. The day will come in which every one of us will
stand before G-d, where our every action will be reviewed and carefully
measured -- and either rewarded or punished. Let us be sure to prepare
ourselves while there is still time.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org