In Parshas Sh’mos, Hashem for the first time informs Moshe Rabbeinu that He will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh will repeatedly refuse to release the Jewish people from Egypt.
Chazal grapple with the question of how the strengthening and hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by Hashem goes together with the concept of free will. Moreover, how can Hashem even punish Pharaoh for his stubborn refusal to release the Jewish people if he was not acting on his own?
One explanation is that Pharaoh’s free will was not compromised at all; in fact, it was enhanced. Chazal tell us that Pharaoh initially fought to harden his own heart during the first five plagues so he would not give in and accept Hashem’s sovereignty. Only then did Hashem step in to further strengthen Pharaoh’s heart as the plagues increased in intensity (Midrash Rabbah, Sh’mos 13:3).
According to the S’forno, in order to give Pharaoh the choice to either accept or reject G-d, his heart had to be strengthened to withstand the intensity of the plagues. Had Hashem not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh would likely have released the Jews due to the intense pain, suffering, and fear that the plagues inspired. This would not have been a free will decision on the part of Pharaoh, nor would it have had any connection to true t’shuvah. At some point during the remaining five plagues, the decision to release the Jews would then have been forced upon him, so to speak.
For this reason, the Midrash later states, “I will harden his heart … to exact retribution from them” (Midrash Rabbah, Sh’mos 5:7). To his detriment, Pharaoh used his Divinely influenced inner strength to merely continue his stubborn refusal to accept Hashem. Pharaoh and his nation were thus deserving of the fullest degree of Divine punishment.
Hashem’s influence over Pharaoh tells us a lot about the concept of free will. At each and every moment, we all have the choice to either come closer to Hashem or pull ourselves away. This applies even when we are faced with the biggest, hardest, and most frightening life experiences – whether those experiences are external or they stem from our own inner world. Moreover, this applies regardless of how the person has acted in the past.
At the same time, we can also learn an important lesson from Pharaoh about the path to inner strength and resiliency in the face of difficult yisurim. Hashem will never send someone a challenge that he can’t withstand. “Hashem does not bring [unnecessary] difficulties to His creations; He only brings upon a person that which is according to his ability [to handle]. (Midrash Rabbah, Sh’mos 34:1)
This means, even when the situation at hand becomes exceedingly difficult, we have the potential to receive Divine assistance to not only withstand it, but to achieve real growth and ultimately come closer to Hashem because of it.
In Sefer T’hilim (27:14) we read: Kavei el Hashem, chazak v’ya’ameitz libecha v’kavei el Hashem – Hope to Hashem, be strong, and He will put courage in your heart [literally: make your heart strong], and [you will thereby] hope to Hashem [at an even greater level].
In the Gemara, Brachos 32b, we learn: “Rabbi Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina, said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, ‘Hope to Hashem; [but if the first hopeful prayer doesn’t help] be strong, and He will put courage in your heart, and [you will thereby] hope to Hashem [at an even greater level].”
By actively fighting to have emunah in Hashem in a “time of darkness” and doing what you can to maintain that emunah, Hashem will respond by strengthening your heart so that you will not be overwhelmed and overcome by your troubles. Instead, you will be endowed with an inner strength to carry on, and you will be free to make the choice to take your emunah to an even higher level. You will thus be deserving of the fullest degree of Divine reward – both in this world and in the next. [The above material was previously published on www.ShiratMiriam.com.]