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Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation
Weekly Musings January 2005
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Friday, January 6 2005

I said a go down Moses

Go right down to Egypt land

And tell that Pharaoh

To let my people go

(old Negro spiritual)

 

Free Choice vs. Predestination

Four hundred years before the Jews left Egypt, Hashem foretold to Avraham his descendant's enslavement and eventual emancipation (Lech Lecha 15:13). This prophecy pre-supposes that the Egyptians were fated to do evil, pre-programmed by G-d, as it were, to enslave the Jews and fulfil their destiny. If so, if our gaolers were just pawns in some cosmic masterplan, how can we demand and celebrate their punishment?

The traditional theological response to this is to make a distinction between the effect and the cause. The Jews, as a nation, were fated to be tormented by the Egyptians, as a nation. Evil, however, is the sum total of malicious actions effected by a number of individual sinners. Any one Egyptian could have opted out of his countrymen's actions and remained guilt-free and blameless. When we demand retribution for the actions of each individual sinner it is in recognition that each one of them exercised free will and wrongly elected to sin.

 

Did Pharaoh however have free choice in the decision to maltreat the Jews? The justification that G-d's bidding would have been accomplished with or without the participation of any individual Egyptian would seemingly not answer in Pharaoh's case. Were the leader of the nation to refuse to participate, surely the slavery would have been averted entirely. If so, considering that Hashem had foretold the mistreatment of the Jews, Pharaoh would have had no conscious choice but was predestined to direct the program of ethnic discrimination.

Even more remarkably, on a number of occasions in this week's Torah reading Moshe is notified by Hashem that though he was to visit Pharaoh and threaten or initiate yet another plague this would have no immediate affect and Pharaoh would persist in his obstinacy. Does it not logically follow then that it was unfair to punish Pharaoh for refusing to heed the Divine command, as his refusal was pre-ordained by G-d?

 

The Nature of G-d, the choices of man

In the times of the prophets, were someone to claim the gift of prophecy, he would be forced to undergo certain tests before his messages were accepted as authentic. To convince us he was a genuine messenger from G-d we would demand that he foretell several events in the near future with 100% accuracy. Making a mistake in even the slightest of details would demonstrate him to be a false prophet and thus deserving of the death penalty.

If however his prophecy had consisted of gloomy prognostications about the future and these failed to materialise, this would not render him automatically suspect. The nature of G-d is kind, merciful and always ready to extend another chance. Many prophets have been sent to deliver tidings of forthcoming doom in the hope that the receipt of such, will awaken us to return to Him. In other words, promises by Hashem of future goodness and kindness are guaranteed to eventuate, negative news - not necessarily.

When Hashem foretold future pain and suffering for His nation these could theoretically have been pre-empted at His command. The fact that for whatever reason Hashem chose not to save us is between ourselves and Him. The Egyptians, by contrast, as with every evil empire and ill doer throughout history, choose to practice misery and destruction, they exercise free will in their wantonness and deserve Divine retribution.

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