And G-d strengthened Pharaohs heart and he pursued them
Parashat Beshalach Shemot 14:4
Every year at the Pesach seder, after reciting the plagues Hashem visited on Egypt the wise son says " Why should Pharaoh be punished ?.Hashem hardened his heart so he had no choice. Isn't free will one of the central ideas in Judaism?"
This is a very difficult question which has occupied Jewish thinkers from the time of the sages of the talmud to our times.
Rambam explains that since Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the first plagues Hashem punished him by revoking his ability to repent.The problem with this interperetation is that it negates the idea of freedom of choice without which reward and punishment are meaningless.
The chassidic view is that Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to bring more plagues upon him thereby weakening his evil inclination, and allowing his conscience which is part of his soul created in the divine image to assert itself. This is similar to how the halacha deals with a recalcitrant husband who refuses to grant his wife a divorce. The problem is that the halacha says that the husband must give the get (bill of divorce) of his own free will. What can the court do? They can flog him until he says " I will" (grant the divorce) How can this be considered acting of his own free will? We believe that deep down every Jew wants to do the right thing,that is commanded by Hashem in the torah and ruled by the court, but the layers of gashmiyut (corporeality) prevent his soul from expressing the divine spark inside him.The lashes break down his physical resistance so that his real spiritual self will break through.
The great nineteenth century commentator Malbim, does not accept the premise that Hashem revoked Pharaoh's free will.He said that on the contrary any normal person after suffering such terrible plagues would have broken down and done whatever Hashem ordered him. Hashem strengthed his heart so that in spite of the plagues he could search his conscience and repent, or decide to continue his evil rebellion against G-d and try to destroy the people of Israel as they were fleeing Egypt.This is expressed in the torahs use of the word chizakti-stregthened, to describe how Hashem inflenced Pharaoh's actions.
But is there such a thing as absolute free choice? The great scholar and thinker, HaRav A.I. Kook answered this question in two ways.First he said that it is a fundamental principle that the very essence of our nature is our total free choice. However he also said that the free choice of everyday life is never absolute, every free movement is comprised of a multitude of compulsions which hinder its freedom and force it in certain directions. He explains that the only entity in the universe with absolute unfettered free will is Hashem. Man, created in his spiritual image has free choice within the confines of the human condition to choose between good and evil. An example of this is that I did not choose to be born a Jew, but I chose to embrace my Jewishness, to choose a life of torah and mitzvot.
Another point that Harav Kook makes is that only the individual has free choice. On the other hand the collective, and espescially the Jewish people, is driven by the Divine choice of the people of Israel to recieve the torah and bring the word of Hashem into the world. As a people we cannot escape our destiny. In this sense Pharaoh really did not have any choice. In the end he could not stand in the way of the destiny of the Jewish people. He thought of himself as a god. He thought that he could impose his will on the world and on its Creator.
He found out that there is one Supreme Will which was, is, and forever will be the master of the universe.