In this Parsha, after the sixth plague of boils, the Torah tells us that G-d “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and he refused to free the Jews. The problem is that by hardening Pharaoh’s heart G-d appears to be taking away his free will. If so, how can Pharaoh be held responsible for refusing to free the Jews?
Abarbanel begins by quoting the solution offered by the Rambam who says that Pharaoh, by murdering innocent children and imposing back-breaking servitude, forfeited any opportunity for repentance. Therefore even though G-d eventually takes away Pharaoh’s free will, his punishment is a result of his previous murderous free will decisions. Abarbanel has a great deal of difficulty with this explanation since the Rambam himself emphasizes elsewhere that even if one repents one moment before his death, that repentance, if it is a sincere product of his free will, will be accepted. Pharaoh, however, completely lost that free will.
Abarbanel offers three alternative solutions, with his main focus on the third one. The first solution is that the ability of a transgressor to repent even at the last moment only refers to transgressions against G-d. However transgressions against other individuals require their direct forgiveness. Obviously Pharaoh could never be forgiven by the thousands that he murdered or injured. Therefore taking away his free would have no effect on his ultimate fate which was already sealed. The second solution is based on a unique understanding of the concept of repentance. Abarbanel claims that repentance in its broadest sense only applies to the Jewish People. In regard to the other nations of the world, repentance is only possible for those who completely reject idolatry and attach themselves to G-d. Therefore Pharaoh, an idolater who refused to accept the omnipotence of G-d, was guilty whether or not he eventually lost his free will.
Abarbanel’s third approach is a unique but brilliantly simple solution to the problem. All the other explanations are predicated on the assumption that G-d actually took away Pharaoh’s free will. Here, however, Abarbanel claims that G-d never did so. Thus the question of how Pharaoh could be punished for his actions becomes totally moot. The problem now is how to interpret those verses that state explicitly that G-d “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. Abarbanel explains that G-d did not harden his heart directly through some metaphysical spiritual influence. Rather, when Pharaoh saw that each of the first several plagues could be duplicated by his magicians or was only temporary, he had no reason to free the Jews. Thus it was the way that G-d administered the plagues that allowed Pharaoh to choose not to free them. G-d chose multiple plagues that ceased short of total destruction instead of one unending calamity in order to demonstrate his power and dominion over Egypt and all aspects of Egyptian life. As G-d says after the plague of pestilence, “For now I could have sent My Hand and stricken you and your people with the pestilence, and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, for this I have let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world.” Pharaoh, however, instead of focusing on the multiplicity of miraculous calamities that were striking Egypt, chose to take advantage of the respite between plagues to strengthen his own resolve to defy G-d and not free the Jews. G-d never directly steered Pharaoh’s decision-making. He only presented him with a particular pattern of plagues that left him free to follow his own inclinations. His free will was never compromised.