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    Do I have a choice? – Va’era

    Do I really have a say in what happens in my life?

    If I search this week’s sidra for an answer, it might appear to support the old saying, Alles is bescherrt – “all is preordained”.

    The sidra talks about Pharaoh and not about me, but the principle ought to be the same. It says in the name of God, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 7:3). The implication seems to be that Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness was God’s doing and that he had no say in the matter.

    Yes, it is true Pharaoh had previously hardened his own heart, but why does God now step in and turn him into a royal puppet on a string?

    The long-established principle of Jewish theology is enunciated by Rabbi Akiva, who said, “All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Avot 3:15).

    It sounds like a paradox. It is saying both that we have and do not have free will, and how can both assertions be true?

    One answer is to distinguish between the external event – i.e. what happens to us, which is often beyond our control – and the internal event – i.e. how we handle what happens to us. Even so the subject bristles with difficulties, but it is still a helpful approach.

    Mr Micawber always hoped that something good would be just around the corner, but he could not be certain.

    Nor can we or anyone else be certain of what is round the corner, because most of the time it is not up to us. But our moral and spiritual decisions are another matter.

    As the great physicist, Sir James Jeans, said, “We have an intuitive belief that we can choose our lunch from the menu or abstain from housebreaking or murder; and that by our own volition we can develop our freedom to choose. We may, of course, be wrong. The old physics seemed to tell us that we were, and that our imagined freedom was all an illusion; the new physics tells us it may not be.

    “It may give us room for such freedom as we have always believed we possessed; it seems possible that in it we can mould events to our desire, and live lives of emotion, intellect, and endeavour…”

    So far so good. Moral and spiritual choices seem up to us. But Chief Rabbi JH Hertz offered a realistic qualification when he said, “We are free agents in so far as the choice between good and evil is concerned. This is an undeniable fact of human experience; but equally so is the fact that the sphere in which that choice is exercised is limited for us by heredity and environment”.

    So the question is, what influences our apparently free choices?

    It is clear there are constraints. And this is how we can explain the Pharaoh story. Pharaoh’s early actions towards the Israelites were free choices of evil which reflected his heredity and environment; his later actions, described by the Torah as God hardening his heart, were Pharaoh becoming so conditioned to hard-heartedness that he could no longer put up even a token show of resistance.

    Our own concern, all these centuries later, must be to ensure that heredity, environment or other factors do not become so strong and powerful that we lose the last shreds of moral conscience and responsibility.

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