Based on RavDessler’s MechtavM’Eliyahu
In ParashatVa’era, Hashem performs a wealth of miracles in the first seven makot. We become so awed by the wonders of Hashem that we rarely hone in on a fundamental principle in Judaism that seems to be challenged by the psukim. A careful reading of the text discloses that after the final two makot in the parsha the pasuk says that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If we believe as Torah Jews that Hashem gives man bechirachofshit, free choice, how can Hashem forcibly control Pharaoh’s emotions and cause him to refuse to set BneiYisroel free?
Many mefarshim attempt to reconcile this difficulty, and try to explain how “V’AniAchazeketlev Pharaoh” in verse 21 chapter 4 can be understood. Their approaches can be divided into two basic categories; those who see the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a natural consequence of his actions, and those who understand Hashem’s intervention as a great chessed.
Rashi explains that when it became obvious before Hashem that Pharaoh would not perform complete teshuvah, Hashem hardened his heart so that he could inflict numerous punishments upon him. This is the normal way of Hashem, to punish evildoers who are beyond repentance, so that through their punishment His greatness can be revealed, and fear of God can be instilled in others. The Rambam writes that Hashem was simply exercising his midathadin. If a person sins greatly enough Hashem can withhold teshuvah from him, in order that the individual suffers from his actions. When a sin is so severe, one can land beyond the sphere of Hashem’s rachamim. The judgment, therefore, is that Hashem must stop the possibility of the sinner doing teshuvah so that he can receive the deserved punishment. Expanding on the same principle, the Ibn Ezra says that bechira at its core means rising above what you are granted by nature. The way to do this is by clinging to Hashem. Pharaoh who did not acknowledge Hashem’s greatness could not rise above his nature. Based on this idea, the Ibn Ezra understands why some psukim say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, while other psukim say that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The two are essentially the same because Hashem can dictate our emotions, but leaves room for us to rise above them. If one does not rise above them, like Pharaoh, it is as if the person himself chose that fate.
The Akedat Yitzchak says chas veshalom that Hashem would close the gates of teshuvah! The concept of Hashem hardening Pharaoh’s heart follows the idea that when one puts himself on the path of sin, Hashem opens up the way for him. When it was clear that Pharaoh would not perform full teshuvah, Hashem created an opportunity for him to sin by spacing out the plagues, as opposed to sending them all straight with no breaks. The time in between the makot presented Pharaoh with the opportunity to muster up the strength to resist sending out BneiYisroel. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart can hence be interpreted not as a closing off of Pharaoh’s bechira but as an arranging of circumstances, which lead Pharaoh to respond the way he did. Remember, even according to this approach Pharaoh could have climbed above what Hashem decreed.
RavDessler brings his own beautiful idea on this topic, which falls into the first category as well. He relates Hashem’s dealing with Pharaoh to the well-known concept that the greater a person is, the greater is his evil inclination. Hashem increases a great person’s yetzerhara so that his free will is not canceled. Think how easy and robotic doing good would be if a great person had a miniscule yetzerhara! RavDessler continues to say that a primary difference between a tzadik and a rasha is that the tzadik consistently chooses good and the rasha does not. When Pharaoh witnessed Hashem’s miracles his yetzerhara grew to counteract this potentially spiritually enlightening experience. It is a normal way of God that the evil inclination increases as we grow. When the pasuk writes that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart it means that Hashem caused Pharaoh’s yetzerhara to grow.
The Ramban and the Sforno fall into the other category of mefarshim- those who view the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a chessed. By responding as He did, Hashem was looking to grant Pharaoh more zechuyot than he would have gotten had he fully controlled his own decisions. Had Hashem not engrained in Pharaoh the will to resist, he would have freed BneiYisroel not as recognition of Hashem’s greatness, but as a response to his immense physical suffering. Hashem wanted Pharaoh’s teshuvah to be for the loftier reason-acknowledging Hashem’s power. If Hashem looked to give Pharaoh, the self-worshiping oppressor of the Jewish people zechuyot, imagine how Hashem must look to give his chosen nation more merit!
Now if a sinner were to come and claim that their persistently stubborn behavior were a result of Hashem responding to them through hardening their hearts like He did to Pharaoh, it would be critical to point out the differences to him. Pharaoh’s emotions only fell under Hashem’s jurisdiction after he chose to harden his own heart and blind himself to Hashem’s power five times repeatedly. It was only after Pharaoh habituated himself to such behaviour that Hashem cleared the way for him to fall deeper into his sinful conduct. Yet, according to the Akedat Yitzchak, Pharaoh could have nevertheless risen above what Hashem had decreed! Even if one holds like the Rambam that the gates of teshuvah were closed off from Pharaoh, this was only after he became so absorbed in evil that it was apparent he would not repent sincerely. Most evil doers are not near this level. And it is important to bear in mind the Sforno and Ramban who say that Hashem searches to find merit even in haters of the Jewish people. With these ideas in mind we should find the strength to rise above that which has become habitual to us and to continue to move forward in our ability to recognize Hashem’s nissimv’niflaot even in our days.