Parasha Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16, explains people’s free will

Lady contemplating her faith

In the story of Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh during the plagues of Egypt, there is a question about whether humanity has free will to choose obedience to the divine. An important question we all must ask is “Am I truly free to follow God?”

For example, in Exodus 10:1 regarding Pharaoh, the Bible indicates that God has “hardened his heart.” In fact, the Torah mentions the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart 20 times. The first 10 occurrences are in relation to the first five plagues in which we are told that “Pharaoh” hardened his heart. This note seems to indicate that Pharaoh makes the choices. For the next 10 occurrences to a “hardened heart,” in the last five plagues we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

In the ancient Near East, the heart is considered the seat of reasoning and thought, not the seat of emotion. For those who want to understand the Bible in its original meaning, the Torah uses three different Hebrew words to describe the act of hardening the heart of Pharaoh. The first word is kasheh, meaning to be “hard” or “stubborn.” The second word is kaved, which means “heavy” or a “burden.” The third word, chazak, means “strong” and sometimes even “obstinate.” The hardening of the heart thus expresses a state of arrogant moral degeneracy, unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion.

The ancient sage Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon taught that it was not God who forced Pharaoh to do evil; the decision was his alone. The rabbi taught that free will is a fundamental principle of Judaism because no one forces, preordains or impels a person to act.

We live in a society in which we can make choices to help those around us with kindness, mercy and love. Every time we commit a cruel act toward another human, we harden our hearts like Pharaoh did; that is, it deadens our compassion to love others around us. For every good deed we do, we soften our hearts and make them more alive, loving and compassionate.

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the plagues that were sent to destroy Pharaoh and Egypt illuminated the power of a God who chose to give freedom to God’s own. Nothing – Pharaohs, hardships nor institutions – can stand in the way of God’s will for human liberation.

We aren’t forced to show kindness toward others around us, but we can always choose to.

Roger Cohen is a university lecturer in Southern California specializing in ethics, religious studies and political science. To learn more of this topic, follow him at