Yesterday, we noted the theory famously advanced by the Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva (6:3) that when the Torah speaks of God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God denied Pharaoh the ability to repent as a punishment for his wrongdoing. Although the notion of free will, the ability granted to all people to decide whether to act virtuously or sinfully, constitutes a fundamental precept in Jewish thought, the Rambam asserts that God will, in exceptional situations, deny a sinner the ability to repent. The Rambam explains that this suspension of free will is sometimes the punishment that God decides that a sinner deserves on account of his wrongdoing, and this is what happened to Pharaoh.
The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Vaera (7:3), cites a passage from the Midrash that appears to corroborate this theory. In Shemot Rabba (13:4), the Midrash cites Reish Lakish as commenting in reference to Pharaoh, “He [God] warns him once, twice and three times, and if he does not repent, he locks the door to repentance in front of him.” The Midrash clearly expresses the view taken by the Rambam, that God prevented Pharaoh from repenting due to his continued refusal to obey His command.
This theory has a source in an earlier passage in Shemot Rabba (11:1), as well. The Torah tells that God instructed Moshe to appear before Pharaoh early in the morning to warn him of the plague of blood (7:15). The Midrash, surprisingly, comments that Pharaoh arose early in the morning to pray to God, and God therefore sent Moshe to Pharaoh early so that Pharaoh would not have a chance to pray:
After the Almighty waits for the wicked to perform repentance and they do not, then even if they eventually want to, he restrains their hearts so they would not perform repentance… Even though they want to return to the Almighty and seek to engage in prayer, they are unable to… Thus Pharaoh wished to engage in prayer, and the Almighty said to Moshe, go stand before him before he goes out [to pray].
This passage, too, clearly reflects the Rambam’s position, that God withheld from Pharaoh the ability to repent.
The Maharsham, in his “Ma’amar Ha-teshuva Ve-ha’tefila” (printed in the beginning of his Da’at Torah, O.C., vol. 4), draws proof from this Midrashic passage to his claim (which we discussed yesterday) that God does not ever entirely deny a wicked person the possibility of repentance. As we saw, the Maharsham sought to demonstrate that even according to the Rambam, at no point does any person lose all chances of ever repenting. Just as a sinner can petition God to revoke any decree issued against him, he is likewise capable of having God revoke the decree that he cannot repent. The Maharsham further asserts that even when God punishes a sinner by denying him the ability to repent, He does not deny him the ability altogether. Repentance becomes more difficult for such a person, but not impossible. The Maharsham draws proof from the Midrash’s comment that Moshe was sent to disrupt Pharaoh was praying. By sending Moshe to speak to Pharaoh just then, as he prepared to pray, God did not actually prevent Pharaoh from praying. He merely created a distraction which necessitated stronger resolve on Pharaoh’s part to pray and appeal to God. Or, as the Maharsham understood the Midrash’s remark, when Moshe approached Pharaoh and accorded him honor, Pharaoh felt reassured and overconfident such that he felt no need to pray in submission to the Almighty. Regardless, it is clear that Pharaoh was not prevented from praying, but rather somehow discouraged from praying. The fact that the Midrash points to this incident as an example of how God sometimes denies the wicked the possibility of repentance thus proves that even when this happens, the wicked individual still has the opportunity to repent. Even when God makes it more difficult for a sinner to repent as punishment for his sins, the possibility of teshuva always exists and is never entirely taken away.