On the passuk “I will harden Pharaohs’ heart” (Exodus 7:3) the commentators bring a few explanations for the tension between Hashem’s knowledge to man’s free will. The question that forces the commentators to deal with this issue is; why did Hashem take away Pharaoh’s free will by hardening his heart?
The Sforno explains that if Hashem would not have hardened his heart, Pharaoh would have released the Jews because of the unbearable plagues and not because of his repentance. In order to return Pharaoh’s true will, Hashem hardened his heart. One of the Ramban’s explanations is that the hardening of the heart (taking away his free will) was a punishment to Pharaoh for the slavery and hardships he caused the Jewish people.
The discussion about these two issues was dealt with by the commentators in the book of Genesis in the Brit Bein Habetarim (Convent between the Parts). Hashem tells Avraham about the future slavery that will come upon the Jewish people who will go down to Egypt, “they will oppress them four hundred years”. The leading question is why were the Egyptians punished for the slavery of the Jews if that was what Hashem had meant for them?
The Ra’avad explains that the Egyptians were punished for the additional hardships. On the other hand, the Rambam explains that Hashem’s Knowledge about how things will turn out does not effect (and even contains) man’s will – whatever it may be. This means that the Egyptians had free will to bring slavery upon the Jews or not to do so and Hashem’s knowledge of their choice to do so did not effect their decision at all. The Rambam ends this explanation by saying that “it is beyond man’s grasp.”
The question that arises from Parahsat Vayeshev which deals with the brothers’ plan to throw Yossef in the pit is: what is the difference between Reuven’s suggestion to throw Yossef in to the pit and the brothers desire to kill Yossef, because it is known that the pit was empty of water but it had snakes and scorpions in it, that would have killed him anyway?
The Ohr Hachaim explains that Reuven knew that the brother’s decision to kill Yossef may be against Hashem’s desire. Therefore, he suggested to throw him into the pit with snakes and scorpions that are part of nature and nature is part of Hahsem’s will. And so, by throwing Yossef into the pit Reuven created a reality in which that if the snakes and scorpions would kill Yossef it would mean that that is Hashem’s desire and that Yossef’s dreams were false, but if Yossef would stay alive in the pit, it would mean that his dreams were true and that Hashem wants to keep him alive. As apposed to the brother’s plan, in which nothing would have been proven because Yossef would be killed due to the brother’s free will, in Reuven’s plan Hashem’s will would be revealed.
According to the above, it is proven that man’s free will can go against the Divine Justice but it still has a part and place in Hashem’s knowledge. The Rambam says about this issue that “it is beyond man’s grasp.”
What is the purpose of man’s decisions if anything he chooses is already part of Hashem’s knowledge, what motivates man to make decisions if they are part of Hashem’s plan?
On the passuk “the staves shall remain in the rings of the ark, they may not be removed from it” (Exodus 25:15), the Meshech Chochma explains that the staves stayed due to Hashem’s command in the rings of the ark even when the ark stayed in place, why is this? The Meshech Chochma writes that the fact that the staves with which they carried the ark stayed in the rings proved that even when they carried the ark with the staves, it was really that the ark carried the carriers, and the proof is that even when the ark stayed in one place the staves remained in the rings. According to this explanation we can maybe say that just as the carriers of the ark were carried by the ark, so is the relationship between free will and Hashem’s knowledge; anything that man chooses exists in the divine plan and when man decides to be part of the divine plan and to make a decision that fits Hashem’s knowledge in the world he himself is elevated by it.
In the past few years we are living in a reality in which it is hard for us to see the purpose of what is happening in the world clearly. I believe that we have to focus our deeds and thoughts towards Hashem’s divine plan which is placed in the Torah and Mitzvot and so we will be elevated together with the divine plan to new levels. Knowing that we are part of Hashem’s divine plan according to our clear sight of what is going on around us will allow us to elevate and to receive the necessary strength.