This article is the third of a three-part series; the previous article is: The Rectification of Pharaoh.

Pharaoh lost his free choice only after he had forced the Jewish people into slavery and tortured them for an extended period; when G‑d later "hardened Pharaoh's heart" this deprival of free choice was itself the punishment for his previous misdeeds. From this explanation, it would seem fair to punish Pharaoh only for the sins he committed before his free choice was taken away, but the consensus of the commentaries is that Pharaoh was also punished for ignoring the plagues and not allowing the Jewish people to leave. Since at that point he no longer had free choice, how could he be punished?

When Can a Prophet Be Wrong?

We can understand this by first examining a closely related subject - that of teshuva. It is obvious that doing teshuva to rectify a misdeed is dependent on having free choice. As long as one has free choice, a person is able to do teshuva; once free choice is taken away, teshuva is impossible. A negative prophecy…can always be annulled through teshuva

Teshuva is effective even when an explicit prophecy suggests otherwise. The righteous King Hezekiah didn't marry because he saw prophetically that if he had children they would be extremely wicked. Nonetheless, the prophet Isaiah chastised him, "Why do you meddle in G‑d's mysteries?" Hezekiah had no right to refrain from fulfilling the commandment to have children regardless of the eventual consequences.

Taking the prophet's rebuke to heart, Hezekiah promptly did teshuva and asked Isaiah to allow him to marry his daughter, but Isaiah told him that the heavenly decree was final and that he should prepare to die. Hezekiah answered that a tradition had been passed down in his family that, "Even if you feel the sword against your neck, it is still not too late". His teshuva was indeed accepted, and the decree against him was annulled. (He subsequently fathered a son, Manasseh, who became one of the most wicked kings in Jewish history.)

This power of teshuva, however, seems to be effective specifically regarding a prophecy. One of the basic parameters of prophecy is that a positive prophecy will always come true. A negative prophecy, however, can always be annulled through teshuva.

A Closed Door

In contrast, we find other cases where no prophecy was involved, and the door to teshuva seems categorically closed. The Talmud tells the story about the infamous "Acher", whose original name was Elisha ben Abuya. He heard a heavenly voice proclaiming, "Everyone in the world can do teshuva - except for Acher". When he heard this, he decided to abandon Jewish observance altogether, becoming a paradigm for wickedness.

Similarly, if a person says, "I will sin now, and do teshuva later", the Torah says, "He is not given the opportunity to do teshuva". It seems that this person is also being deprived of his free choice.

There is a logical explanation for this. If he did not have teshuva to rely on, he would not have sinned in the first place. Teshuva, therefore, has contributed to his sin. Since it was a kind of "cause" for the sin, it cannot be used later to rectify the sin. One cannot use teshuva to perform two opposite functions. In the words of the Talmud: "The prosecuting attorney (i.e. the teshuva that caused him to sin) cannot become the defense attorney (i.e. to rectify the sin)."


Nevertheless, we find, paradoxically, that even in such cases, teshuva is possible. The person is merely "not given the opportunity to do teshuva". This means that teshuva will not be made easy for him. He won't be provided with an auspicious time for teshuva; enormous obstacles might even be placed in his path. But if he "pushes his way in", his teshuva will be accepted. The door might be closed in his face; he might not have the key, but if he really wants, he can knock the door down with the brute force of his deep resolve. Nothing can stand in the way of teshuva

This is a much deeper teshuva than normally required. That is why the principle of "the prosecuting attorney cannot become the defense attorney" does not apply. The teshuva that the person originally had in mind was a regular sort of teshuva, and that level of teshuva is indeed ineffective. This person has employed a brand new "defense attorney" - a dimension of teshuva which hadn't been previously imagined.

This is what our Sages meant when they said, "Nothing can stand in the way of teshuva." Even when the door is closed to teshuva, there is always a more profound level of teshuva which can push past it.

Reaching Deeper

That is why the Talmud says that Acher was punished for his actions. Even though he had heard the heavenly voice announcing that his teshuva would not be accepted, this should have inspired him to do an even deeper teshuva, which would have been accepted.

This is also explains how Pharaoh was punished even after his free choice was denied. Even Pharaoh had the ability to reach deeply inside himself and do a deeper teshuva, which could transcend this decree. If he had "pushed his way in", he, too, could have done teshuva. [Our Sages indeed say that Pharaoh eventually became the king of Nineveh who, as described in the book of Jonah, led his people to teshuva.]

The principle that, "Nothing can stand in the way of teshuva", remains absolute. So does the concept of free choice. Even when G‑d "hardened his heart" and deprived him of his free choice, this was only on the superficial level. Deep within, he still had the ability to choose. And since he did not exercise it properly, he deserved to be punished. There are always difficulties that must be overcome…

This leads us to a profound understanding of the concepts of teshuva and free choice. Every person has factors that influence his behavior in one direction or another. Their significance could be exaggerated to the point that a person thinks that these influences deprive him of his choice, or at least provide some sort of excuse for his actions.

This approach presents an enormous obstacle to teshuva, because it makes it virtually impossible for the person to take responsibility for his actions. There are always difficulties that must be overcome, whether as a product of genetic makeup, upbringing, or environmental pressures. A person can always claim, "How can G‑d expect me to do teshuva when I have to deal with THAT!" A person can only do true teshuva when he accepts full responsibility for the transgression....

Such a person will never do proper teshuva, because he is always looking at the (sometimes valid) rationalizations and obstacles to teshuva. Ultimately, all excuses are unacceptable, because even if the obstacles are real, we have the ability to overcome them by digging deeper within ourselves. If we do not use this ability to surmount the obstacles to teshuva, it is nobody's responsibility but our own.

It's All Yours

Just as it is with teshuva, the same applies to the transgression itself. A person can only do true teshuva when he accepts full responsibility for the transgression. There are many factors that a person could point to as causes of his transgression: his genetic makeup, etc., as mentioned above. But as long as he avoids taking complete responsibility, his teshuva is incomplete. He will always say that he regrets what he did, but he will always feel somewhat justified in that he had an excuse.

This is one of the reasons why the issue of free choice must be clear. If a person feels that he has no free choice, then he feels that his behavior can be excused - it is not really his to begin with.

Pharaoh seems to have the strongest claim in this regard, since he could say, "What do you want from me? G‑d hardened my heart - He should be the one to be punished!" But Pharaoh was indeed held responsible, since although G‑d hardened his heart, he still had the ability to act justly.

To return to the first article of the series, Why was Pharaoh Punished?, please click here.

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