One of the challenging ideas to understand in the Exodus story is how to relate to the idea, repeated a number of times, that God “hardened Pharoh’s heart.” This idea seems to be in conflict with the notion of free will. If it was God who hardened Pharoh’s heart, why should he be blamed. Punished for his refusal to free the Israelites?
There are a number of approaches to this question. I’d like to mention the approach of Maimonides, as expressed in his Laws of Repentance:
“It is possible that a person may commit a grave transgression, such that the True Judge rules that the punishment is that repentance is withheld from him and he will not be allowed the right to turn from his evil.”
Though this quote can be understood from a theological perspective, I understand it from a psychological one. Free will does not mean that our past decisions play no part in our choices today. There are consequences to our past actions, and sometimes those consequences include fewer options in the present. Sometimes those consequences include an inability to choose from all of the theoretical choices for a given scenario. A person can get “locked in” by previous choices. In effect, such a person can at times lose their ability to exercise their free will.
In the past I have discussed the liberating characteristic of Free Will; that every day is a new beginning that allows us to change the course of our lives and make better decisions. However Maimonides’ interpretation of the hardening of Pharoh’s heart warns us that sometimes our choices cause us to lose our ability to choose in the future.