When reading Tanach, people are inclined to see things in black and white without considering all avenues of thought. I think that when reading Parshat Beshalach, we fall into the same trap. We tend to ignore Hashem’s seemingly unfair treatment of Pharaoh because we see Pharaoh as the bad guy. If so, why should we care if Hashem takes away his choice and leads him to his death?
After the plague of boils, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Shemot 9:12). For the first time, it is no longer Pharaoh deciding to force the Jews to stay in Mitzrayim, but Hashem, who has a master plan to afflict the Egyptians with ten plagues and drown them in the sea. After the tenth plague, before Hashem speaks to Moshe in the desert, the reader might think, “Finally, the Jews are free, and Pharaoh will no longer be punished.” However, Hashem has other plans. After Bnei Yisrael are on their way to the sea, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart, forcing one final confrontation, in which He will be able to prove that Pharaoh is merely human (Shemot 14:4). The idea that Hashem would harden Pharaoh’s heart seems difficult. How can it be legitimate for Hashem to remove a person’s free will?
In Chapter 7 of his introduction to Pirqei Avot, Rambam discusses the notion of free will in relation to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. According to Rambam, if the issue were simply a matter of Pharaoh not allowing the Jews to leave Mitzrayim, there would be a serious problem with Hashem hardening Pharaoh’s heart because it would be an abrogation of free will and would appear unjust.
However, upon further reflection, Rambam claims that Pharaoh really did have the choice to allow the Jews to leave Mitzrayim. Instead of choosing to allow the Jews to continue living in Mitzrayim as free men, Pharaoh enslaved them. Hence, his punishment was to lose his free will and be unable to repent, in order for punishment to be carried out to its conclusion. Therefore, instead of merely killing Pharaoh and the Egyptians and allowing the Jews to leave Mitzrayim, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart one last time to force Pharaoh to chase after the Jews. Pharaoh is then drowned as punishment for oppressing His people. Rambam concludes that Pharaoh’s loss of free will is a result of Hashem determining that the punishment needed for Pharaoh would warrant a loss of the ability to repent, for, as we know, Pharaoh had five chances to let Israel leave under his own free will.
Perhaps one can learn from Rambam’s analysis that humanity does have the ability to choose, but sometimes the choices appear predetermined. Unlike Pharaoh, who loses his freedom of choice due to constantly changing his mind regarding the freeing of the Jews, most of us have some form of choice. However, like Pharaoh, we can lose the ability to choose if we do not carefully control our actions.