Long, but always worth it.

“One of the greatest gifts we have in this world is the ability to make choices in our lives. Though sometimes, we might wish we didn’t have to make those choices.

They had trained us for just such a moment. Again and again, this exact question had come up; in fact, an entire day in Officer’s course had been dedicated to this very question. What would you do? How would you respond? And all of us, without fail, had reached the same conclusions. Intellectually the choice was very clear, and made infinite sense. But that didn’t make the choice any easier.

One of the most important topics, drilled into you again and again is what they call “Todah”, recognition of enemy weaponry. In fact, every Friday morning in tank Officer’s training, (usually done when you are already in dress uniform, literally with the bus engine running, waiting to take you home for a weekend pass,) there was a pop quiz on ‘todah’. And if you didn’t get a perfect score, you didn’t get home for Shabbat. So you can imagine everyone knew this topic backwards and forwards. One of the regular questions on the test was the RPG anti-tank weapon. A hand-held Russian-made toy, this Rocket Propelled Grenade was a tank killer, and one of the arch nemeses of the armored corps. Easy to fire, with a range of up to 300 yards, it could peel through the armor on our tanks like butter. You could flash a picture of one of these to any tank officer in his sleep, and he’d spew out the name of the weapon, whether it was friend or foe, statistics, and effective responses, without even batting an eye.

So when, on tank patrol in Beirut, you see one of these tubes sticking out of an alley, you know exactly what you have to do, and you know you only have a second to do it. There is an over-ride system a tank commander has, called a ‘mashbet’, which takes control of the main gun away from the gunner. You don’t have time to bring the gun around for the gunner to see in his limited scope, direct him to the target, and wait for him to aim and fire. That takes eight seconds, which is seven seconds too long. So you grab the mashbet, which sits in the turret wall right at hip level, and bring the tank gun left to site on this tube even as it is emerging from the alley it was hiding in. You have practiced this again and again in maneuvers, till you can aim the main gun at close range and hit the target in your sleep. At a couple hundred yards, even with a target as small as a person, you can’t miss.

It all seems like slow motion, seeing the tank gun come left, while the fellow in PLO camouflage uniform, jumps out and crouches down, hefting the long tube on to his shoulder to aim at a huge target that must fill his scope. It’s like the Wild West, you have only a second to aim & fire, and whoever hits the trigger first, wins. And that’s when you realize why they spent so much time preparing you for just such a moment; why you’ve had to have made the choice in your mind long ago. Because as your finger tightens around the mashbet trigger, you suddenly realize the man holding the RPG isn’t a man at all, he’s a seven year old boy.

They called them RPG kids; children trained by the PLO to fire RPGs at tanks in combat. They banked on the Israeli soldiers’ sense of moral responsibility causing that hesitation that could make all the difference. We lost a lot of men in those moments of hesitation…

Years later, you know you made the right choice. In urban warfare, tanks travel in columns, and often only the tank in front can fire in the narrow alleyways of Beirut. And if your tank gets hit, the whole column gets stuck in what could easily turn out to be a nasty ambush. So there are a lot of men depending on your decision. But the image of what a 105mm tank shell does to a seven-year-old boy stays with you forever

Choices; sometimes obvious, often difficult, we don’t always relish the weight and challenge that come with them, but they are, in the end, part of what make us who we are. The choices we make carry with them the ability to grow, to express ourselves, and most of all, to be partners with G-d in creating, every day, the new world we live in. It would perhaps, be simpler, if we didn’t have to make such choices, and G-d did it all for us. But then we would be animals, and life would lose its meaning. Judaism believes that the power to choose is the essence of the image of G-d we carry within us. And because we make these choices we can be held accountable for all that we do. There is consequence to our actions, and there is purpose to our existence.

All of which makes the opening of this week’s portion, Beshalach, so challenging.

G-d tells Moshe, that the people should make camp opposite the Sea, because:

“I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart that he will pursue them (Israel), and I will harden Pharaoh and all his armies, that Egypt will know that I am G-d…” (Shemot 14:4)

Essentially, Hashem will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will pursue the Jewish people, resulting in the miracle of the splitting of the Sea. This has been one of the major themes of the entire story of the exodus from Egypt. All the way back at the Burning Bush, when Moshe is first sent to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, G-d tells him (3: 19-20) that Pharaoh will not let the people go, and G-d will strike at Egypt with all manner of miracles, and only then will Pharaoh let the Jewish people go.

And again, before ever arriving in Egypt, G-d tells Moshe (4:21) that:
“I will harden his heart and he will not send the people out…”

Indeed, throughout the entire Exodus story, even at the last plague of the first born, (11:20) G-d consistently hardens Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Why is this concept so crucial to the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt? Why is it so important that it is repeated so often? What would have been so terrible if, after a couple of plagues, Pharaoh had seen the writing on the wall, and let the Jewish people go home? We could have received the Torah en entire year earlier!

Think about it; the world was without the Torah for nearly a year, simply because G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why?

And even more challenging is the theological issue this raises. If Pharaoh did not actually choose to keep the Jews in bondage, why was he (along with all of Egypt) responsible for the consequences? If after, say, the first plague, Pharaoh would have let the Jewish people go, but didn’t because G-d hardened his heart, how could Hashem then ‘punish’ him for his refusal by visiting the next plague upon him? He did not choose to refuse, so why is he responsible for the implication of that choice-less choice?

And of course, this question has enormous ramifications for us, in all that we do. If G-d is really pulling the strings, and we find ourselves in situations where we really have no choice, perhaps we are not responsible either?

If a person grows up in a really tough neighborhood, in a home full of all sorts of abuse, then hasn’t G- d ‘hardened his heart’? Is he really responsible for the choices he will ultimately be led to? This position, often taken by the environmentalist approach to the study of human behavior, seems to be completely at odds with Jewish tradition. Every Yom Kippur, we own up to the mistakes we have made, taking responsibility for our actions, and Maimonides, in his laws of repentance, makes abundantly clear that every human being is capable of rising above his environment, however challenging that might prove to be.

Yet G-d states quite clearly here that He hardens Pharaoh’s heart. So how is Pharaoh then held accountable for his actions?

The key to this question may lie in a fascinating insight the Ramban (Moshe Ben Nachman, a 13th century commentator in Spain, and later in Jerusalem,) makes.

It is interesting to note, that in the first five plagues, despite Hashem’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart, it never says that he does so. In fact, consistently in the first five plagues, the Torah actually describes how Pharaoh hardens his own heart. (See 7:23, 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, and 9:7) It is only with the advent of the sixth plague, that we begin to see (9:12) that G-d actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart.

The Ramban suggests that although Pharaoh can only be responsible for the choices he himself makes, a person can make choices, which ultimately remove his ability to choose.

A person can actually sink to such a level of evil, as a result of the choices he has made, that he actually no longer has the ability to choose. This is how far down into the abyss of human behavior Pharaoh had sunken. He was so invested in evil, so absorbed in the path he had chosen, he no was no longer on that path out of choice, he was simply on a roller-coaster ride he could no longer control.

This may explain why the decisions Pharaoh was making, from our perspective, made absolutely no sense. How could he have been so blind? Clearly, every time Pharaoh refuses to let the Jews go, things only get worse. And clearly, Hashem has the ability to deliver on His promises, and Egypt is no match for the hand of G-d. Eventually, the Jews will be going home, so why not just let go?

When you stop to think about it, Adolph Hitler found himself in exactly the same place 3,000 years later. In fact, the parallels to ancient Egypt are fascinating. The choices Hitler made at the end of the war make absolutely no sense. In 1944, when most of the problems the German armies were facing were the holes in their supply lines, Hitler was dedicating most of his rail lines to transport the 400,000 Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz.

Imagine a drug addict. It is hard for many of us to understand what motivates a person to pick up heroin for the first time. The implications of such a decision are so clear, and can only end in disaster. Nonetheless, this decision is a choice that someone makes. And this choice may lead to another choice, to use heroin again, and again, and again. But eventually, when a person reaches a certain stage in their addiction, they are no longer able to choose. One might suggest that the definition of addiction is that you can no longer freely choose. The only way for an addict to really break his addiction is for others, perhaps in a rehab center, to step in and gradually return to him his ability to choose. This does not, however mean, that he is not responsible for his actions. His own actions were what led him to the state of addiction he now finds himself in.

This is not, incidentally, always a bad thing. We can actually use this process to remove choices we don’t want to have to struggle with.

Rav Dessler, in his Michtav Me’Eliahu, points out that every person has a range of choice with which they struggle. But each person can change the parameters of that range. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, did not struggle with the temptation to eat a cheeseburger when he walked by McDonald’s. The idea of eating a cheeseburger must have been so beyond where he was, that the thought most probably never occurred to him. Quite simply, the path of his life removed that choice from his range of possibilities!

This also means that I not only have the ability to remove choices from my own range of possibilities, but I can actually influence someone else’s range of choice as well. Most notably, this is true in the way we raise our children. By making certain choices for the way our children will lead their lives, we actually have removed certain issues from the range of their possibilities.

Growing up in the home I grew up in, it is not really much to my credit that I chose not to date and marry a non-Jewish partner. In fact, I remember the point that this became abundantly clear to me.

I once asked my mother (really, it was one of those questions you ask your mom just to see if you can get to her…) what she would say if I brought home a non-Jewish girlfriend. I was about 16 at the time, and 24 some odd years later, I still remember the answer. She said ‘ if you could bring a non-Jewish girlfriend home to this house, we probably wouldn’t have much left to talk about’.

And in that moment, I knew I could never, would never, date, much less marry someone who was not Jewish. And I don’t really think that was my choice.

This is true, to some degree, of all the choices we make. They affect everyone else in our lives, and their choices, as well. For example, if you are the type of person who is successful in always keeping a smile on your face, and rarely getting angry, then you remove other people’s choice to create conflict with you. If I am determined to be happy and positive, it is much more difficult for anyone to choose to argue with me. It always takes two people to have a really good fight. And if I refuse to choose to fight, then don’t I actually limit someone else’s ability to make that mistaken choice as well?

And this leads me to one last point: It is important to differentiate between the choices that are ours to make, and the choices we cannot make for anyone but our selves.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, makes an incredible statement. Says the Baal Shem, when you see someone else making what you perceive to be a bad choice, don’t assume it is so that you can tell them what you think they are doing wrong. It is really so you can realize how much you need to work on that very same issue. For example, if I see someone desecrating Shabbat, it is not so I can yell “Shabbos!” at him or her; it is because my Shabbat needs a little work.

I remember, after my army stint was over, doing guard duty one night in yeshiva. There was a two- man patrol around the grounds of the yeshiva, and all the students gave a certain number of hours to guard duty every month. For practical reasons, they always paired up the new guys with no military experience with veterans who were more experienced. I had been in Yeshiva a few years already, and was about to start rabbinical studies, and this boy I was with was in his first year of yeshiva studies out of High school.

In the middle of the patrol, while we were talking, he started telling me a joke. After a moment I realized he was telling me a dirty joke! I couldn’t believe it, here we were, spending our days studying Torah, I was getting ready to begin the process of studying to become a rabbi, and this albeit younger, yeshiva student was telling me a dirty joke! I resisted my impulse to let him have it, because I didn’t want to embarrass him, which gave me a moment to think. And it occurred to me, that this guy must think that I am the type of guy who wants to hear a dirty joke… If Rav Lichtenstein, the head of the yeshiva, was walking with us, I imagine this boy would not have started telling such a joke.

So after I thought about it, I realized the joke was on me. The real challenge of that experience was to become the type of person no one would ever consider telling a dirty joke to in the first place.

Often, the choices we have to make are a function of the choices others make before us. The implications of those choices are the gift that we ultimately give to the world.

Maybe this is why this issue is so much a part of our Exodus from Egypt. We all have our own little Egypt we are always trying to get out of. And part of making that exodus, is the awareness of the choices we make, and the understanding of the implications they have.

May Hashem bless us all to rise to the challenge of the choices we are faced with, and to revel in the way that those choices make us partners with G-d in re-creating the world each and every day.

And may we even be blessed, on occasion; to see just how beautiful the gift of our choices is, to the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

R. Binny Freedman”

About the author

Laya Millman


  • The Muffti is very very confused.

    First, why do rabbis always feel like they are competent cognitive scientists/psychologist whose speculations on the nature of human choice structure should be considered reliable? These are empirical matters, not a priori ones. We took years to develop a scientific division of labour where people actually can become experts in a field: why don’t rabbis stick to theology, which they are experts at and not tread on domains they are unqualified for?

    Second, and hopefully less ranting, the suggested explanation doesn’t seem to explain the problem at all. The problem we opened with is why does God harden Pharoah’s heart when the hardening suggests that but for God’s intervention, Pharoah would have let our peeps go. The explanation is

    A person can actually sink to such a level of evil, as a result of the choices he has made, that he actually no longer has the ability to choose. This is how far down into the abyss of human behavior Pharaoh had sunken. He was so invested in evil, so absorbed in the path he had chosen, he no was no longer on that path out of choice, he was simply on a roller-coaster ride he could no longer control.

    But this explanation is entirely out of step with the evidence that set the problem up. Say Pharaoh hardens his own heart for 5 plagues. Irrational? Probably. Of his own free will? Let’s grant that it was and that this set him on the apparently uncontrolable roller coaster ride. But then the real question is, if he was on the aforementioned ride, why did God have to harden his heart?!? This was the mystery we began with and the explanation seem entirely at odds with the evidence. If Pharoah had, by his own choice, set himself on a path that he could no longer get off of (not by his own choice), why did he need God’s help to keep on that path? So the analogy with the addict is false, at least as far as the surface of the story suggests: its more like an addict who does drugs for a while, and then decides he might stop, and has an omnipotent pusher make him do more and more until he dies a terrible death.

    Third, the sad part of the whole story is that even if we could resolve the mystery regarding Pharoah, it’s sort of myopic to only wonder about whether Pharoah deserved his fate. Let’s remember that Pharoah was a ruler of an entire people who, as a result of heart-hardening in their leader, suffered ten plagues. This included the slaughter, at the hands of hashem, of their first borns. These guys (and their first borns, especially the infants) didn’t undergo heart hardening. They didn’t really have a choice in the matter at all as far as I can tell. This should reveal the deep, sad truth about vengence and responsibility in the old testament: free will and decisions have almost nothing to do with punishment. It is irrelevant whether God hardened Pharaoh’s heart of Pharoah did: Pharoah, and all the people suffered from the plagues were in for it. This theme emerges over and over again the old testament and is partly enshrined in the principle that the sins of fathers will haunt their children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children (Deuteronomy 5:9-10). So, to sum up (sorry for the length), the thought that God needs a reason to mess you up that derives from some bad action you did is just a confusion. God can mess you up as he feels like it, so there is really no mystery to solve when it comes to cases that look to be cases of injustice as prima facie Pharoah does.

  • Grandmuffit,

    Although you’re pontificating is annoying, you ask good questions. But your first statement is silly and demonstrates much of the low job satisfaction (leading to depression, absenteeism, etc., etc) employees have with our current “pin hole” approach to job creation.

    I’m the expert you’re referring to. My training is in adolescent and family therapy…have been doing it for over 8 years…read the stuff…fan of Freud/Jung…etc. And all you have to do is scratch the surface of Freud’s ideas on dreams…unconscious, etc, and you find most of it in the Talmud, Zohar and P’shat Torah. Many rabbis have an incredible depth to their understanding of human suffering, motivation and what makes communities/families work (ever read a bio of a famous therapist…Erickson, Freud, Jung…completely f’ed up). I’d take the good counsel of how a family/marriage should work by a frum rabbi over a secular therapist any day of the week. I’m often surprised how a good drash creeps into my sessions with my clients – minus the text references, etc.

    Rav Binny seems to have (I’ve read a few of his sermons) an unbelievable grasp of the human spirit/condition. I suggest you follow your own advice, go to Yeshiva…work in a shul…and you’ll figure out pretty quick why rabbis have the wherewithal to address the human condition/suffering/spirit.

    Come down from the mountain GM, there’s some nice stuff on the ground.

  • Are you talking about the actual “italics” or the content therein?

  • Muffti take Shtremiel’s point. (well, not the one about the Muffti’s annoying pontificating, but surely rational men can agree to disagree). I actually felt a bit bad about the first comment; it probably was kind of silly. I do think that ultimately questions of free will, if they make any sense at all, will have to be decided by cognitive science and neuroscience, not by therapists and humanists with some insight into the human spirit. Nonetheless, I happily retract and defer to your expertise. For what it’s worth, I have worked in a synagogue and had plenty of nice conversations with Rabbis that in the end seemed to be nice people with sensitivity to the human condition. As far as Freud and Jung go, I’ve read the former extensively and the latter only a bit. I think it’s a majour stretch to locate much of it in the zohar or any other relevant text. But, I play by my onw rules and agree that you are the expert. So, Rabbis, speculate freely. And sorry about being annoying.

    What I would really like answered is the latter questions because I think what is interesting is how anxious we are to see god as living up to human ideals of fairness and how challenging it is to actually fit the old testament into that mould.

  • Muffti pontificated from his ivory tower: Let’s remember that Pharoah was a ruler of an entire people who, as a result of heart-hardening in their leader, suffered ten plagues. This included the slaughter, at the hands of hashem, of their first borns. These guys (and their first borns, especially the infants) didn’t undergo heart hardening. They didn’t really have a choice in the matter at all as far as I can tell.

    As far as you can tell. Exactly. Perhaps this ought to serve as a lesson to all that the sins of their leadership will be visited upon all the followers of the leader. Who is a follower? Anyone not actively engaged in remedying the evil being committed in the name of the entire polity, and anyone who is a net beneficiary of said evil.

    Think of Germans paying reparations for the holocaust, or US and Candian taxpayers paying reparations for the illegal internment of of citizens of Japanese descent. I mean no one in my family was anywhere near Canada when all that shit went down. Not all Germans were actively involved in the holocaust. But that’s the nature of collective responsibility, when the polity allows itself to be ruled by evil persons. So there’s an answer for you.

    The free will issue you bring up is a relevant one. But clearly things are not so cut and dry. I’m no rabbi, but my guess is that it’s kind of irrelevant. By the time God and Moses step in, the bulk of the evil against the children of Israel has been committed. The hardening of Pharoah’s heart may have been to allow God to mette out sufficient punishment. Pharoah may not have had free will once divine justice decided to intervene, but until that moment, he did, and he chose the path of evil. Pharoah and the Egyptians got what was coming to them. But that’s just my humble and oh so worthless opinion.

    And I am sincerely touched by your retraction. That shows strength of character and I tip my hat off to you. I always knew there was a darn good reason we are friends!

  • Muffti understands ck, but this answer seems dubious. While surely followers of a leader end up paying for his/her sins, on the assumption that some of the first born killed were infants (which seems awfully reasonable), it is difficult to peg ‘follower’ status on them. I mean, it’s hardly fair to see them as complicit or even passively endorsing Pharoah’s evil slavery plans. This is all just to say that free will doesn’t seem to enter much into the old testaments view of divine justice. God kills and punishes as he sees fit, and my point was that there is no mystery as to why God punishes Pharoah: he wanted to. There doesn’t seem to be any further question to answer. The false presupposition seems to be that a punishment of x is the result of one of x’s actions or ommissions. Where does God say that that is always the case?

    As for reparations, I think that’s a subtle matter. Muffti thinks that the reparations are owed by a state to a people, not by people to people. So while your family wasn’t in Canada when the Japanese were interned, the same state that was responsible for that nonsense survives to this day and owes a debt for the damage that it caused. Your family being part of that state partially assumes the debt (along with the benefits of being a part of that state.) So I’m not sure the analogy really stands up.

  • The Muffti likes ck’s idea, but finds it rather dubious.
    First, the analogy seems flawed. The Canadian government (those italics are for you, TM!) owes money to the japanese and their families who were interned, not your parents. Your parents live in Canada and thus incur any debts their government owe, at least in part. The state that committed the offenses still is around and thus that state is the responsible party and thus that state will pay for its misdeeds. That’s the wierd things about corporations and states: they get to act, make decisions and leave behind their messes even though they aren’t people.

    Second, I wanted to focus on the Egyptians precisely because it seems implausible that they were all complicit. The slaughter of the first born, on the assumption that at least some were infants, is an example of someone paying for a choice of someone else. Infancts are surely not guilty of complicity! But I think you are right: Pharaoh messes up and, through no fault of their own, the infants pay and die. That’s just to illustrate muffti’s point, however: getting punished for x does not entail that you did something to deserve the punishment. This is premise of human justice, but clearly not one of divine justice.

  • Grandmuffti, I think you may have rewritten the same post twice. Sorry about that but your remarks fell into the comments awaiting moderation list and were only released now.

  • muffi: I’m sure the parents were none to pleased to see their infants killed. And what an appropriate punishment after ALL the Jewish infants were slaughtered. Keep in mind that we are talking about an existence on 2 planes, the physical and spiritual. The souls of the innocent I’m sure were well taken care of on the spiritual plane. Finally, the fault for their deaths lay in the hands of their parents whose acquiesence to evil invited, nay caused, divine retribution.

    As for reparations, i don’t disagree with you. I fully accept my responsibility as a member of the state for sins caused by said state even though I had nothing to do with the underlying injustice.

  • Muffti thinks that slaughtering first born babies rotten for the parents, but even more so (or, at least, also!) for the babies! And if it was the parents who caused it, well, all the more for my principle: that other people’s actions can cause bad things that look like a punishment to happen to you. That’s all I’ve been trying to say all along! As far as spiritual and physical planes, I see no evidence of that at all in the old testament. That’s just another example of ad hoc manouvering to make god’s action fit a schema of justice that we like to think he is held to. What i’ve been advocating is that we give that that schema of justification and then we won’t have any mysteries to solve about who deserved what punishment.

  • …and Muffti appologizes for the double posting; he thought he had screwed something up. This is what happens when Jersey gets hit with a snow storm and you are stuck with your professor’s BMW Z3 rather than your car and it can’t drive in the snow coz it’s a german piece of crap…

  • Muffti, why just blame the Germans? Let’s also blame the Russians or Rumanians who are spamming this site day and night so that we have to have the filters on.

    Anyway, since when can professors afford BMWs?

  • T_M: GrandMuffti and his professor room mate live in a mansion whose former occupant was an Israeli drug lord. The place is awesome and there’s lots of huevos rancheros! Also, there’s a lake in the back with geese and stuff. Muffti’s livin’ large!

  • From what I’m reading these days about Eatern European Jewry of old, I hear roasted goose was a big celebratory delicacy.