Please note: this article is the first of a three-part series.
The basic approach of the commentaries is that G‑d indeed “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but only after Pharaoh had tormented the Jewish people for a lengthy period of time. A simple reading of the sequence of events confirms this.
Pharaoh’s inhumane treatment of the Jewish people, including infanticide and devastating oppression, begins at the opening of Exodus, before Moses is even born. G‑d’s first statement of intent, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 4:21), was said only after Moses had grown up, escaped to Midian, married and had children. Therefore, it was only after Pharaoh had sinned in the most appalling manner that G‑d stripped him of his free choice. ...there are numerous ways by which G‑d could have punished Pharaoh.
But what was the purpose of removing his free choice? Maimonides explains that the loss of his free choice was itself Pharaoh’s punishment. Normally, the path of repentance is always open; G‑d wanted to show the world that a person could sin so severely that he would be denied the ability to correct it through repentance, causing him to die in that degenerate state. In a way, this is the ultimate punishment, since the person is denied the ultimate reward of the World to Come.
However, this raises another question: there are numerous ways by which G‑d could have punished Pharaoh. The lesson that G‑d might remove a person's free choice can be derived from other Biblical passages, as Maimonides documents. What was the point in punishing Pharaoh in this specific way?
So many Sparks
There are a number of approaches to resolving this question, the first of which involves the concept of purification of sparks, or birurim.
Kabbalah explains that with the creation of the universe, sparks of holiness were spread throughout the world. This process is alluded to in the second verse of the account of Creation (Gen. 1:2), which says, “the spirit of G‑d hovered above the water.” The Hebrew word for “hovered,” is m’rachefet, and contains five letters. When rearranged, these letters spell out the phrase “288 died” [rachaf-met], alluding to the descent of these 288 sparks from their spiritual source above down to the physical world.
These 288 sparks must be purified and elevated in order to bring the world to completeness and redemption. In Egypt, 202 out of the total 288 sparks were purified. This is alluded to in the verse, “A mixed multitude [erev rav] came up with them” (Ex. 12:38). The Hebrew word, “rav” [“multitude”] has a numeric value of 202, referring to the 202 sparks, which were elevated. After the Exodus from Egypt, we are left to work on the remaining 86, which had split into countless minute sparks.
How? How Long?
Some of the ways in which these sparks can be purified are known to us; others are concealed from us in what is known as the “secret of purification,” sod habirurim. The primary purification of the sparks in Egypt was achieved through the exhausting labor of the Jewish people. ...the sparks had to be completely elevated before the Jewish people could leave
This is actually one of the reasons why the work was so hard: the sparks had to be completely elevated before the Jewish people could leave.
If they hadn’t worked so strenuously, the 210 years would not have been sufficient; they would have had to remain even longer to elevate the sparks. It was vitally important to elevate every spark as part of the overall scheme of creation. In addition, these sparks contained various souls which, when purified, would later descend to become vital elements of the Jewish people.
Being Purified Can Be Hard Work
There was another factor as well. The Jews who were enslaved in Egypt were being prepared to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. Scripture therefore compares Egypt to a “crucible,” which purifies metal through intense heat. Only this process can expunge the impurities, and produce pure, untainted gold.
Accordingly, the Egyptian bondage was an integral part of creating the Jewish people. Had they been redeemed “prematurely,” the purification would have been incomplete.
Had it been up to him, Pharaoh would never have allowed this process to be completed. The plagues, as his servants pointed out to him, had virtually destroyed Egypt. There was no point in holding on to the Jews any longer.
But had he relented earlier, the purification of sparks and the preparation of the Jewish people would not have been completed. The hundreds of years of slavery would have been pointless.
This helps us understand why G‑d punished Pharaoh by taking away his free will. In this way, G‑d ensured that the Egyptian exile would last the proper length of time, and that its ultimate purpose be achieved.
No Other Way?
Although the removal of Pharaoh's free will did fulfill this function, our question is still not entirely answered. Certainly, G‑d could have kept the Jewish people in Egypt in some other way. The Jewish people could have been kept in Egypt without resorting to the extreme measure of denying Pharaoh his free will.
In our next installment, we will discuss why it was important for Pharaoh to be punished in this way, leading us closer to the essence of the concept of free will.
The next related article: The Rectification of Pharaoh