The Rambam, in Hilkhot Teshuva (6:3) and in Shemona Perakim (4), advances the theory that although all people are given the free will to choose to act nobly or sinfully, a person could lose this ability as a punishment for his misdeeds. It is possible, the Rambam writes, for a person to lose the ability to repent as a punishment for an especially grave sin or for his having committed numerous sins. On this basis, the Rambam explains the verses in Sefer Shemot (4:21, 7:3 and elsewhere) that speak of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. The Rambam explains that Pharaoh had committed such grave crimes against Benei Yisrael that he was punished by losing the possibility of repenting, and this is why he repeatedly refused to yield to God’s demand to release Benei Yisrael, even after witnessing God’s miraculous plagues – because he was denied the wherewithal to yield.
The Maharsham (Rav Shalom Mordechai Schwadron of Berezhany) wrote a lengthy essay about the Rambam’s theory, which he entitled “Ma’amar Ha-teshuva Ve-ha’tefila” and is printed in the beginning of one the volumes of his Da’at Torah (O.C. vol. 4). He begins by expressing the reaction that many likely feel upon hearing of the possibility of a person being denied the possibility to repent:
Now these words of our rabbi [the Rambam] are very frightening, and can, seemingly, lead to despair, Heaven forbid. After all, all the hope of people like us on earth is repentance! Without it, which person can live and say, “My soul is at peace; I did not sin or commit iniquity or misdeeds’? If through one sin or many sins that a person commits he can reach a situation where repentance is prevented from him and he is not given the ability to repent from his evil, as stated, then he will despair, Heaven forbid…
The Maharsham emphasizes this point by citing the prophecy of Yechezkel (33:10-11) in which God told the prophet of the people’s feeling that since they have sinned, they no longer have hope and will die in their state of iniquity. This assumption led the people to despair and make no effort to change and repent. God instructed the prophet to convey to them the message that God does not want evildoers to die in a state of sin, but rather to repent. This prophecy appears to call into question the Rambam’s theory, according to which, seemingly, lifelong sinners could legitimately conclude that they should not bother trying to change, since they have likely forfeited the opportunity to repent, as Pharaoh did.
The Maharsham therefore proceeds to show that the Rambam did not intend that people could permanently lose the possibility of repentance. Even Pharaoh, he claims, could have been able to repent if he truly wished to change.
The Maharsham seeks to prove his claim from the following comments of the Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva (6:4):
Regarding this matter the righteous ones and the prophets ask God in their prayers to help them…like [King] David said, “Teach me, O Lord, Your way” (Tehillim 27:11), meaning: Let my sins not block me from the path of truth… Similarly, that which he said, “and support me with a generous spirit” (Tehillim 51:14) – meaning: Allow my spirit to fulfill Your wishes, and my sins should not cause me to be prevented from repentance. Rather, I should always have the ability until I again understand and know the path of truth…
The Maharsham understands the Rambam’s description of King David’s prayer to mean that David feared that he may have been deserving of this punishment – the loss of the ability to repent. While one might have read the Rambam to mean that King David prayed for help so he avoids committing sins that would render him liable of such punishment, the Maharsham explains the Rambam’s formulation as indicating that King David refers to the possibility that he had already committed such sins. Accordingly, the fact that King David recited such a prayer clearly proves that even after God has decided to deny a person the opportunity for teshuva, he still has the ability to overcome this barrier and repent – and King David was praying for this ability. Even after suspecting that he might be deserving of this punishment, he beseeched God to mercifully allow him nonetheless to repent. Necessarily, then, the Rambam does not speak of a situation where there is no longer any chance whatsoever for repentance. Even when a person receives this punishment, that he is prevented from repenting, he can still beseech God to annul this decree, just as a person can plead with the Almighty to annul any other decree. And thus, according to the Maharsham’s understanding of the Rambam’s position, at no point is a person denied any possibility of repenting.