ויאמר ד' אל משה בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו וגו
And Hashem said to Moshe, come to Pharoh, for I have hardened his heart in order to place My signs and wonders in his midst.
The commentaries discuss the age-old question of ‘how can Hashem punish Pharoh if it was Hashem Who hardened his heart, and took away his ability to repent’?
There is an interesting Medrash that records a dispute between Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish:
ד"א כי אני הכבדתי את לבו, אמר רב יוחנן מכאן פתחון פה למינים לומר לא היתה ממנו שיעשה תשובה שנאמר כי אני הכבדתי את לבו. א"ל ריש לקיש, יסתם פיהם של מינים, אלא אם ללצים הוא יליץ., שהקב"ה מתרה בו באדם בפעם ראשונה שניה ושלישית ואינו חוזר בו והוא נועל את לבו מן התשובה כדי לפרוע ממנו מה שחטא, אף כך פרעה הרשע כיון ששיגר הקב"ה ה' פעמים ולא השגיח על דבריו, א"ל הקב"ה אתה הקשית את ערפך והכבדת את לבך הריני מוסיף טומאה על טומאתך
I have hardened Pharoh’s heart; says Rav Yochanan, this gives the heretics an excuse saying that Pharoh was unable to do teshuva! Replies Reish Lakish, the heretics should shut their mouths! Did not Hashem warn Pharoh time and time again?! Eventually, Hashem closed the door of teshuva, in order to exact the deserved punishment from him.
Asks Rav Elya Lapian zt”l, what exactly is the crux of the dispute here? To whom are the heretics saying this to, and what is Reish Lakish’s rebuttal? If anything, Reish Lakish is making the problem greater, for Rav Yochanan seems to be saying that this is merely an excuse, while Reish Lakish says that Hashem actually took away his ability to repent!
Explains Rav Elya- Rav Yochanan is echoing the excuse that people commonly make; ‘of course I feel bad about my sins and shortcomings, but what can I do? My inclination is too strong, and I am simply not able to overcome the things that tempt me...’
This says Rav Elya, borderlines on heresy. Because this complainer is implying that Hashem did not give him the wherewithal to fight his yetzer; that he doesn’t have free choice, and shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions.
To this Reish Lakish responds, this can’t even be used as an excuse! It is clear what happened here with Pharoh; He did have free choice, and he could have agreed to free the Jews when he first was introduced to Hashem. The problem was that through refusing to listen time after time, he entrenched himself in the grips of his yetzer, and put himself on a trajectory of sin; now, of course it is even more difficult to extricate himself, but the blame is all his, not on anyone else!
Accordingly, these parshios are important lessons for all of us; we have free choice, and are quite capable of staying on track; but if we habituate ourselves with distractions, indeed, it can become difficult to correct. But hope is not lost! The medrash tells us that even Pharoh eventually learned his lesson, and went on to become the king of Ninveh, and inspired his entire country to do teshuva! For nothing is able to stand in the way of true, sincere repentance!
Have a wonderful Shabbos!