Since the time that Adam and Chavah ate from the Eitz HaDa’at (BeReishit 3:6), mankind has known the difference between good and bad (3:22). From the early Parashiyot in Sefer BeReishet, it is quite clear that mankind has the right of free will. However, we as Jews believe that while we do have free will, Hashem knows what will ultimately happen. In Parashat VaEira, Hashem not only hardens Par’oh’s heart, but He also tells Moshe in advance of His planned actions (Shemot 7:3). Why and how did Hashem take away Par’oh’s free will?
There are several theories presented by Meforashim which address this confusing question. According to Shadal (7:3 s.v. VaAni Aksheh Et Leiv Par’oh), when the Torah mentions that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart, it does not mean that Hashem took away Par’oh’s free will. Rather, mentioning that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart connects Par’oh’s free will to the Divine source of his free choice, Hashem. Since ultimately all acts are accredited to Hashem, the Pesukim are merely informing us that Par’oh’s hardened heart can be accredited to Hashem.
Based on Shadal’s approach, the following question arises: how can one’s decisions ever be attributed to oneself? Shadal answers that only “Ma’asim Zarim,” “strange actions which cannot be explained,” like Par’oh’s blatant stubbornness while being faced with the miraculous plagues, can be ascribed to Hashem.
Abarbanel (ad loc. s.v. VaAni Aksheh Et Leiv Par’oh) offers two more approaches to our question. Throughout the Torah, we see that negative actions have negative consequences. Someone who steals, murders, or transgresses any commandment, specifically against his fellow human being, must be atoned for his action in this world before being atoned in the world to come. Par’oh and the Egyptians were guilty of performing horrendous crimes against the Jews for which they had to first be physically punished in this world. By hardening Par’oh’s heart, Hashem actually helped Par’oh and the Egyptians; by causing Par’oh’s stubbornness and the subsequent plagues, Hashem enabled the Egyptians to be atoned in this world. The second opinion of Abarbanel is that the hardening of Par’oh’s heart was caused by the methodology of the plagues. If there were just one continuous plague, certainly Par’oh would have eventually given into it. To show His greatness, however, Hashem ensured that following each plague, Par’oh would try to rationalize what happened by saying that the plague was merely a natural phenomenon, and if it were caused by a divine source, then the plague would not have ended until the Jews were actually freed. Thus, the hardening of Par’oh’s heart was an inevitable outgrowth of the way Hashem designed the plagues.
Seforno (ad loc. s.v. VaAni Aksheh) argues that Hashem wanted Par’oh to repent, but only for the right reasons. Had Hashem not hardened Par’oh’s heart, Par’oh certainly would have let the Jews out, but not because of a sincere desire to repent and accept Hashem as God. Rather, Paroh would have released the Jews due to the tremendous pain and suffering afflicted by the plagues. Therefore, Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart so that he would have the capability to endure the plagues which would cause him to not release the Jews out of fear of the plagues but out of repentance. While Hashem wanted Par’oh and the Egyptians to repent, He would not accept repentance which was due to duress. By hardening Par’oh’s heart, Hashem gave Par’oh an opportunity to fully redeem himself without having to deal with the mental and physical duress which was caused by the plagues.
We see from these Meforashim that Hashem wants us to act in His ways, and He helps us by leading us down the right path. Just as Hashem wanted Par’oh to repent, so too does He want all of mankind to lead righteous and productive lives.