In this weeks parsha, Va’era, we see seven of the ten plagues and the interesting “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” (shemot 4:21, 7:3). This is seemingly a very difficult concept because when reading through the parsha, Hashem hardens the heart of Pharaoh in order to stop him from letting the Jews go. Why won’t Hashem give Pharaoh permission to let the Jews go and stop the atrocities on His people? Is the parsha telling us that Hashem can take away our free will?
The Rambam explains in Hilchot Teshuva 6:3 that in the case of such terrible sins Hashem takes away our ability to do teshuva and he cites Pharaoh to prove it. With this understanding, Hashem does not take away free will to do good or bad. Hashem can only remove free will when a person may undeservedly try for forgiveness. The simple question on this answer is why Moshe would continue to approach Pharaoh if there is no chance of the Jews being allowed to go free. The Rambam says that the Torah is trying to show the world the result of egregious sins and what happens if you cross the Jews.
To further understand the position of the Rambam, research must be used to prove it using other cases of the same nature. Yeshayahu is a sefer describing the extent of the failures of the Jews. The destruction is coming and Yeshaya is avidly trying to get the Jews to repent, yet his attempts are fruitless. In this pasuk he describes the essence of his failures: ו:י הַשְׁמֵן לֵב-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְאָזְנָיו הַכְבֵּד וְעֵינָיו הָשַׁע: פֶּן-יִרְאֶה בְעֵינָיו וּבְאָזְנָיו יִשְׁמָע, וּלְבָבוֹ יָבִין וָשָׁב--וְרָפָא לוֹ.
“The nation is fattening it’s hearts, the ears are hardens, and the eyes are sealed. They must open their eyes, listen with there ears, and understand with there heart in order to repent and be healed”.
The Rambam says on this that the dulling of the senses is referring to Hashem removing the ability to repent because of the extreme level of the sins. He confirms his theory in Divrei Hayamim bet:
לו:טז וַיִּהְיוּ מַלְעִבִים, בְּמַלְאֲכֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, וּבוֹזִים דְּבָרָיו, וּמִתַּעְתְּעִים בִּנְבִאָיו: עַד עֲלוֹת חֲמַת-יְהוָה, בְּעַמּוֹ--עַד-לְאֵין מַרְפֵּא.
“And they (Jews) insulted the messengers of Hashem, mocked his words, and taunted his prophets until the wrath of Hashem became incurable.”
The Abarbanel cites the Rambam in his commentary on Shemot in order to disprove him and provide his own explanation. The Rambam believes that there is a line and that there is no going back once it’s crossed. This line, he says, is proven by Pharaoh. The problem the Abarbanel has is that this line is seemingly not crossed by some comparably terrible people. Sanhedrin 90a says Menashe (the king) and Achav are considered two of the worst kings because of the atrocities they caused and the effect they had on the Jews in leading them to serve idols. Yet in both cases chazal says they repented. In attempt to reconcile, the Rambam says in Hilchot Teshuva 4:6 that we cannot understand the actions of Hashem. This is not a satisfactory answer for the Abarbanel.
The Abarbanel gives three explanations as to what “hardening pharaohs heart” means. The third is the one he says is his strongest. In his third answer, the Abarbanel says that maybe we are all understanding “hardening pharaohs heart” incorrectly. It is not Hashem taking away his free will, but rather the way in which Hashem delivered the makot caused a hardening in pharaohs heart. What does that mean? It wasn't a spiritual or intellectual control over Pharaoh, but rather each of the makkot was made specifically by Hashem to be temporary or possible to replicate by the chartumim. Through this, Hashem allowed Pharaoh to believe that he was not fully beaten because the destruction was not complete. Hashem shows his immense power again and again to prove his dominance to the nations and their beliefs/deities.
Yoni Spero is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel. He is a member of the Here Next Year Ambassador Program.