כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ
for I have hardened his heart
Pharaoh was in middle of committing some of the worst crimes against the Jews in history. Hashem repeatedly sent Moshe to tell him to release the Jews, and to warn of impending plagues if he ignored the command. The Torah tells us that Hashem “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he would ignore the command, “so that I may place these [miracles] of Mine in his midst.” Hashem was going to make Pharaoh ignore the command so that he could be punished with the plagues.
Many commentaries ask why Hashem allowed Himself to do this. Isn’t one of our core beliefs that everyone has free will, and only because of that can we be punished or rewarded based on our choices?
There was once a Jewish fellow who had some legal issues with a Christian. The matter reached the courts where a priest was going to be the judge. The Jew quietly sent the priest a nice “gift”. The priest called a conference with the Jew and asked him how he thought himself right to do such a thing, after all does his own Torah not command him not to try to bribe a judge? There’s very sound logic behind that too, it will be very hard for a judge to remain unbiased knowing that one of the litigants sent him a gift.
“You’re right,” the Jew responded. “If two Jews came before you, it wouldn’t be right to try to find favor and sway your decision. However, in this case, the other fellow is a congregant of yours. I have strong suspicions that you may be biased in his favor, I’m not trying to gain an edge here, I’m just trying to even the playing field.”
The Bet HaLevi uses this parable to explain what happened with Pharaoh. Pharaoh had no interest in letting the Jews out of Egypt. The suffering visited upon him with the plagues was making it impossible for him though. He was going to let them out against his will to end the suffering. The suffering was essentially removing his free will. Hashem hardened his heart so that he remained with a choice rather than being forced. The stubbornness gave him back the freedom to choose.
(What we, as Jews, should realize is that we don’t have this issue. Even when we decide to do the right thing because of tremendous suffering or something else which seemingly removed our free will, we still get credit. We are assumed to really want to do Hashem’s will, but sometimes don’t because yetzer hara gets in the way. When we ultimately do the right thing, it’s our inherent desire being dragged to the forefront.)