On several occasions throughout the story of the ten plagues and the Exodus, the Torah speaks of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. This is mentioned first in God’s prophecy to Moshe just before he left Midyan to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, when God told Moshe, “…va-ani achazeik et libo ve-lo yeshalach et ha-am” – “I will harden his heart, and he will not send the nation” (4:21). Likewise, after Pharaoh rejected Moshe’s initial demand that he release Benei Yisrael, God instructed Moshe to return to the king, and said, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will make abundant my miracles and wonders in the land of Egypt” (7:3). This is mentioned on several other occasions, as well.
Much has been written about the subject of God’s “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart, which is commonly understood to mean that God actually forced Pharaoh to refuse Moshe’s demand that he free Benei Yisrael. The obvious implication of this understanding is that God interfered with Pharaoh’s free will, and denied him the intellectual or emotional capacity to yield and to do the right thing. Such a notion, of course, gives rise to the question of how a human being’s free will – the existence of which constitutes a fundamental tenet of Jewish faith – could possibly be lost. The most famous answer given to this question is that of the Rambam, who, both in Hilkhot Teshuva (6:3-4) and Shemona Perakim (chapter 8), controversially writes that one who commits a grave sin or numerous sins can be punished by having his free will taken from him.
Among those who argue on the Rambam’s theory is Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, author of the Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala commentary to the Torah. In a characteristically bold and innovative passage in this work (to Shemot 4:21), Rav Mecklenberg asserts that the Rambam and other writers misunderstood the meaning of the verses that speak of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. He cites the Midrash’s comment in Shemot Rabba (13:6), “Why did the Almighty gave time for the plagues…and did not being [them] upon [the Egyptians] immediately? In order that they change their minds and repent.” This would certainly suggest that God wanted Pharaoh and his countrymen to repent – not the opposite, as the Rambam claimed. (It should be noted, however, that other Midrashic passages, as cited by the Ramban (7:3), strongly support the contention that God withheld Pharaoh’s ability to repent.) According to Rav Mecklenberg, when the Torah speaks of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart, it actually refers to the severity of the punishments brought upon the king and his nation, expressing the pain and distress the plagues caused. And thus, for example, when God told Moshe in Parashat Vaera, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…and Pharaoh will not listen to you” (7:3-4), he meant that despite all the calamities that God will bring upon Pharaoh, he will nevertheless refuse to yield. Likewise, whenever the Torah in the Exodus story tells that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he refused to release Benei Yisrael, it means that Pharaoh refused to release them despite this “hardening,” even though he and his country suffered immensely from the plagues. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes this point, Rav Mecklenberg explains, to underscore the extent of Pharaoh’s obstinacy and arrogance, how his insistence on the correctness of his position was so firm that nothing, not even supernatural plagues, could convince him otherwise.
One might, however, challenge this theory in light of the account in Sefer Devarim of Benei Yisrael’s battle against the Emorite kingdom. In Parashat Devarim, amidst Moshe’s brief review of the Benei Yisrael’s experiences after leaving Mount Sinai, he recalls how Benei Yisrael requested rights of passage from Sichon, the king of the Emorites, who promptly refused and launched an attack against Benei Yisrael. The ensuing conflict resulted in Benei Yisrael’s conquest of the territory east of the Jordan River, which several tribes decided to make their permanent home. Moshe tells the people that Sichon refused to allow Benei Yisrael pass through his country “because the Lord your God hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart, in order to give him into your hands” (Devarim 2:30). It seems very difficult to interpret this verse – which is formulated similarly to the descriptions of Pharaoh’s heart “hardening” – as referring to anything other than God luring Sichon to attack Benei Yisrael by making him especially stubborn and unyielding. Rav Mecklenberg’s approach to explaining the concept of Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened” would have to account for the description of Sichon’s heart’s “hardening” when Benei Yisrael requested passage rights through his territory. Somehow, he would need to show how his understanding – that the “hardening” refers to the severe punishment – could be applied to the Torah’s description of Sichon, as well. Rav Mecklenberg makes no comment in his work to this verse in Sefer Devarim, and thus we cannot know how he would explain the description of Sichon’s heart being “hardened.”