One of the more famous questions asked about the process of the exodus from Egypt is that of Pharaoh’s free choice. In several places G-d tells Moshe that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and make him stubborn. He’ll refuse to send the Children of Israel. As a result of his stubbornness and refusal, he’ll be punished with plagues progressively until he is humbled. If Pharaoh is forced to act stubbornly, and it is not of his own free choice to withhold permission to leave, what is his sin? He is not responsible for his actions at that point. There is a saying that one who acts in a certain way out of coercion cannot be praised or criticized for his deed. Besides this, there is a well known concept that G-d does not give anyone a test he can not withstand. Doesn’t making Pharaoh stubborn contradict this rule?
The Bais HaLevi offers this approach. In truth Pharaoh did not want to send the Jewish Nation. The plagues were coercing him to go against his will. The plagues were removing his free choice. G-d gave him an extra dose of stubbornness in order to offer him the opportunity to do as he truly wished.
From this perspective we can see that Pharaoh can be held 100% responsible for his actions. He can be criticized and punished because he was exercising his free will. Giving Pharaoh the extra stubbornness is what gave him the opportunity to withstand the test with free will intact. Otherwise he is merely acting out of coercion. In addition, what G-d wanted from Pharaoh was a change of heart brought about through recognition of His majesty. He wanted Pharaoh to want to send the Jews, so his free choice played an important role, and needed to be maintained. The plagues were the display of G-d’s sovereignty over every aspect of the universe. They were the tools used to convince Pharaoh of G-d’s might.
The Bais HaLevi applies this to the concept of suffering and repentance. Why is repentance acceptable when it is brought about through suffering? As we know, the Jewish exiles are forms of suffering designed to bring about a turn-around in our behavior, and more importantly, our attitudes. The same question can be asked. Changing one’s behavior through suffering is not a reflection of a change of heart. It’s just a way of avoiding pain. The attitude remains intact, and when the threat of suffering is removed, the negative behavior will return.
The answer to this is that we really do want to do G-d’s will. Why don’t we do it? It’s because we get distracted by other “priorities”. In other words, our desire to act in a way contradictory to G-d’s desires is not intrinsic to us as it was with Pharaoh. It is a consequence of ignorance of the whole picture; losing the forest for the trees. Troubles tend to be sobering, and they focus our attention on things with true intrinsic value. We come to realize that we were not putting the emphasis in life on the correct priorities. Afterwards, even in the absence of further threat of suffering, we tend to take life more seriously, and regret the time wasted violating G-d’s will.
The analogy to this is of the olive. Hidden within the olive is the oil. However, the olive must undergo an extremely traumatic, crushing experience to bring out its best. The same is true with us. Deep within us is the desire to serve our Creator with fire and enthusiasm. Many times that desire remains hidden even from ourselves. Sometimes, though, difficult experiences in life act as a catalyst to bringing out that beautiful potential which is hidden deep inside. May we all be privileged to discover and fulfill our true desire to serve G-d under the most pleasant circumstances.