Since free will is the fundamental element of the human being that places him in a realm apart from the rest of Creation, the question of how Hashem could “harden the heart” of Par’oh (e.g. Shemos 9:12) is an obvious one.
The Rambam’s approach, echoing Resh Lakish in the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 13:3), is that the king’s own freely chosen initial actions robbed him of his free will, like, one might say, a drug addict’s choice to use heroin might affect his ability to choose to shun it thereafter. The hardening of Par’oh’s heart only began after several plagues.
The Ramban’s and Sforno’s approach is that, on the contrary, the heart-hardening actually gave Par’oh free will. It was but a counterbalance to the will-sapping fear of the plagues. The divine steeling of his resolve was thus a corrective measure, allowing him to exercise his free-willed decision to refuse Moshe and Aharon’s demand.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin offers an original approach. What the Torah’s statement that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart means, says Rav Zevin, that he gave Par’oh an enhanced ability to be stubborn. Like every middah, talent and ability, obstinacy can be channeled toward good or bad (See Rav Ashi’s statement in Shabbos 156a about one born under the influence of Ma’adim: “[He will be] either a bloodletter, or a thief, or a shochet or a mohel.”)
Klal Yisrael, after all, is obstinate, too, an am kshei oref. Obstinacy’s import lies in what one does with it.
So Par’oh’s use of his Hashem-given special stubbornness against Moshe and Aharon and Klal Yisrael was… his choice.
© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran