The fact that G-d had “fortified Pharaoh’s heart” and thus gave him no
choice but to force us to stay in Egypt is definitely puzzling. But as
we’ll see, it will actually enhance our understanding of free will.
Rambam agrees that G-d had in fact tampered with Pharaoh’s free will, but
he maintains that G-d had every good reason to, since it was all part of
His overarching system of higher justice. For you see, Pharaoh sinned in
many ways aside from enslaving us. As Rambam reminds us, Pharaoh oppressed
us early on; as it’s said “he said to his people, Behold, the Children of
Israel are more numerous and mighty than we. Come; let us deal cunningly
(i.e., cruelly and maliciously) with them!” (Exodus 1:9-10). And so they
committed all sorts of crimes and inhumane acts against our
people, “freely … rather than by compulsion” Rambam underscores.
“So G-d punished them for that” Rambam asserts, “by preventing them from
doing teshuvah”. For as Rambam put it elsewhere, G-d ordained that anyone
who’d committed a horrendous sin or a great number of sins, as Pharaoh
did, is punished by being prevented from doing teshuvah (Hilchot Teshuvah
And so Pharaoh and his people could no longer realize the extent of their
cruelties; no longer regret them; no longer decide not to follow through
on them ever. So their free will was indeed taken away from him to that
extent. Why? Because they’d gotten themselves so deeply mired in sin and
cruelty that they’d lost their humanity; hence their free choice, which is
so much of what defines our humanity, was rescinded in all fairness.
That’s the phenomenon that G-d was following through on when He “fortified
Pharaoh’s heart“. G-d’s overarching justice demanded that reaction to such
evil individuals, even though it undid their free will. The underlying
point is that even though free will is fundamental to the human condition,
it’s still and all out-ranked by other factors.
Now, there’s something to be said about this little-known phenomenon that
hits very close to home and should stun anyone in search of spiritual
excellence. It’s the whole idea that there are times when our lapses get
to be so numerous and so “normal” for us that we can be prevented from
getting a handle on them and doing teshuvah! Hence the lesson is that it’s
vitally important for us to be aware of our behavior patterns and to stop
any destructive ones as soon as possible.