Parashat Bo opens with G‑d telling Moses to warn Pharaoh about the plague of locusts, but that Pharaoh will not heed the warning because:

"I have hardened his heart in order that you will tell your children and children's children how I have acted fearsomely with Egypt."(Ex. 10:2)

But how can the plague of locusts be a punishment for Pharaoh not heeding Moses' warning if G‑d makes it impossible for him to act properly by hardening his heart not to listen?

Pharaoh…could have returned to G‑d and saved himself and his people….

The commentaries explain that during the earlier plagues Pharaoh did have free choice to release the Jewish people, but since he acted defiantly against G‑d, his free choice was taken away. This is "being punished with the same attribute one has sinned with". Pharaoh proclaimed, "Who is G‑d that I should listen to Him?" (Ex. 5:2) G‑d responds by showing him who is really in control.

Pharaoh's behavior during the plague of locusts demonstrated how much he had lost control. Even his servants admonished him, saying, "Don't you know Egypt is being destroyed?" (see Ex. 10:7) At the same time Pharaoh commands that Moses and Aaron be brought back to him in order to tell them "Go and serve your G‑d" (Ex.10:8). G‑d is hardening Pharaoh's heart, until again he changes his mind.

The only remaining question is ethically, how can Pharaoh be punished if he has no free will - and even more, why does G‑d keep bothering to send Moses to warn and negotiate if the outcome is known?

It is explained in Tanya (Iggeret HaTeshuva 11), the foundation text of Chabad Chasidut, that sometimes we can slide past all boundaries, both spiritual and physical, and move into a mode that is described as "a person is not assisted to repent". Nevertheless, even in this state where a person has only his strengths to rely upon, if he relentlessly pushes himself to overcome his negative inclinations and in fact does change his behavior, his repentance is accepted.

Similarly with Pharaoh, even though his free will had been compromised, if he had truly fought it he could have returned to G‑d and saved himself and his people from the remaining plagues. Because he did not try, it was fitting for him to be punished.

The instant a person wants to make the move, he can do it immediately….

The Lubavitcher Rebbe draws a lesson from here that is worth holding on to forever. If evil Pharaoh was still capable of returning to G‑d even after G‑d had hardened his heart, then what about a Jew, whose soul is "a part of G‑d from above"? Even when they are entrenched in sin, deep down inside they are still connected to and faithful to G‑d. It must be that they always have the potential to return to G‑d.

G‑d looks forward to this effort on the part of every Jew, even those Jews who seem so far away, whether from ignorance or inclination that they seem to have lost it all. This is only an external perception. Really, the instant a person wants to make the move, he can do it immediately, in the twinkling of an eye.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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