The Torah repeatedly emphasizes that we have the capacity and agency to choose how we live and act. With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah because if our actions are predestined, we are not morally responsible. If we are not morally responsible, then there can be no justice, reward, or punishment.
Throughout, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Pharaoh’s free will was compromised; how could he then be punished?
Maimonides’s exposition of free will allows for the possibility to do something so bad that the path of repentance and making amends is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back. In Pharaoh’s case, by enslaving, torturing, and murdering the Jewish People, justice required that he be prevented from making amends.
R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests this is fairly intuitive – we can become prisoners of our own pride. Pharaoh had obstinately blinded himself to his peoples suffering, to the point where his adviser pleas fell on deaf ears:
הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – Do you not see Egypt is already lost? (10:7)
The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house.
It is not difficult to imagine someone becoming so entrenched in their worldview that they get tunnel vision and can’t change their course.
As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, it is something we must consciously choose for ourselves.