Free Will and Dental Care

Bo By :  Eliezer B. Diamond Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Jan 26, 2007 / 5767 | Torah Commentary

After years of neglect and in response to the prodding of my dentist, I have undertaken a much more rigorous program of care for my teeth. Often at the end of a particularly strenuous day I hesitate between following my nightly periodontal regimen and simply jumping into bed. One voice in my head says, “Big deal, it’s only one night.” Another voice says, “Yeah, and how do you know that you won’t say the same thing tomorrow? Anyway, remember how your mouth became such a mess in the first place? One night of neglect at a time. You’ve got to reverse the cumulative results of that neglect one night at a time as well. Those nights add up, for better and for worse.”

The foregoing dental reverie leads me to a reflection on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which is mentioned often at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The medieval philosopher and rabbinic scholar Maimonides, who was an advocate of radical free will, was troubled by the notion that God could harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish him for not setting the Israelites free as a consequence of that very (divinely instigated) hardening of the heart. Maimonides solves this difficulty by claiming that initially Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and then later, God continued to harden it so that Pharaoh would not be able to escape the punishment he deserved through a hasty act of repentance that presumably would have been the product of prudence rather than of true contrition.

I am not convinced by Maimonides’ explanation — in fact, the relationship between human free will and God’s will is complicated throughout the Tanakh — but the question he raises about the process of Pharaoh’s hardening of the heart fascinates me. Frankly, I imagine it to be analogous to the situation of my teeth. Initial neglect led to a barely visible film of plaque, which eventually became encased by a harder layer of calculus. Brushing that might have removed all the plaque before the calculus formed was no longer sufficient to do so. The entrapped plaque infected my gums, which led to gingivitis, followed by gum loss, bone loss, and the loosening of my teeth. At each step the effort needed to reverse my condition increased, and the chances for success diminished.

So, too, it was with Pharaoh’s heart. When Pharaoh first turned away from the cries of the oppressed Israelites it would not have been that difficult for him to turn back and respond after an initial period of indifference. In fact, it was probably initially difficult for him to maintain an attitude of indifference. But as he ignored these cries day after day it became increasingly easier to do so, and at a certain point, difficult for him to hear the cries of anguish with any sense of empathy. Eventually, even if he knew rationally that he should redress the wrongs that had been visited upon Israel, a hard shell had formed around his heart to render him emotionally and morally inert. The work involved in stripping away his indifference simply became too great; he was forever trapped in an attitude of callous cruelty.

I imagine two moments in this process. The first is early on when Pharaoh realizes that his treatment of the Israelites is cruel and evil, but he rationalizes it to himself. It is a political necessity, he tells himself; at some point soon, when I have achieved my political ends, I will treat the Israelites better. Any day now things will be different. But they are not; and without Pharaoh’s realizing it, the gradual but cumulative effect of his evil is to shut him off more and more from the possibility of repentance and goodness.

And then comes the second moment. One day Pharaoh awakes and realizes that even if he wishes to it is now too difficult for him to turn back from his oppression of the Israelites. Yes, in theory it is still possible, but the energy that such a volte-face would require seems to him beyond human strength. And so the hardening continues until the shock and terror of seeing his own son dying in the plague of the firstborn finally catapults him into submission.

The “plaque buildup” of repeated wrong behaviors is a constant threat to all of us. Nothing can be more dangerous than to tell ourselves that “we can quit anytime we want.” Not anytime, not always. As for Pharaoh, each day that we allow ourselves to follow the path of least resistance we move farther and farther away from the possibility of redeeming ourselves, until that possibility sees so distant as to be impossible. Clean teeth, clean hearts — a day at a time.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Eliezer Diamond

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.