Moses Maimonides raises a fair question about this week’s Torah portion in “The Eights Chapters” in his Commentary on the Mishnah. In Parashat Bo’, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, rendering it impossible for Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites with the coming of locusts, darkness, and warning of the death of the first born. With each plague’s occurrence, Pharaoh appears willing to free the Israelites, but God prevents him from choosing to do so, ensuring that the Egyptians will know the futility of their gods and the might of Adonai. Maimonides, though, questions how God could justly punish Pharaoh in the absence of free will. It raises the overall question of our existence, our relationship to suffering, and the overall arbitrary nature of life.
Now, my thoughts on this matter are still developing. On some days, I find myself bombarded with bursts of existential crises, questioning what it means to be alive and cope with hardship amidst glimpses of joy or long periods of distraction, and although this idea sounds bleak, my process this week has been to imagine how to make the most of a possibly futile life. In this case, we must accept that our existence is limited and that due to this mortal character coupled with our ability to live freely, we will always compete with one another for survival, inadvertently or purposefully causing human suffering. In contrast, dealing with this relationship paradoxically produces what is most special about human existence; life would almost certainly be devoid of purpose unless we exercise our humanity as a response to man-made cruelty, creating music, art, literature, and community. God, in whatever sense – abstract or literal – watches over a most perfect universe, but the way to make this universe most perfect was to constrain it in a way that creates imperfection.
Every human deals with our swarms of locusts (for college students, like myself, locusts=exams), our periods of darkness, and loss of other human life. Unlike Pharaoh, though, we exist in a way that allows for choice in the midst of hardship. Why live at all if we are connected in a web of suffering and mortality? The third predominant strand in this web, free will, allows us to react to one another’s actions, as much as it causes them. If life has no quintessential meaning or if suffering is fixed in the universe’s design, then choosing to serve one another creates purpose. Developing communities empowers us to find meaning in a place where meaning may not certainly exist, and Judaism teaches us that we are always continuing the work of creation. We may not know why we are here, but God does not harden our hearts so that we can accomplish and formulate anything in the midst of this discovery, even among locusts or other adverse conditions.