One of the most terrible and frightening feelings is that of being trapped. There is no way out. Blocked on all sides. It is a situation which might occur, G‑d forbid, in literal, physical terms, in a context of violence or war. It is also one which might arise in terms of the turns and twists of a career, or of difficult human relationships. Being trapped is also something which might happen to a person inside his or her own mind and heart. Trapped, unable to move freely. Stuck. Like Pharaoh King of Egypt.

In which way was he trapped? Pharaoh was the oppressor of the Jews. They were trapped; in what way was he?

The Torah tells us that G‑d "has hardened Pharaoh's heart." Because of this, Pharaoh is unable to respond to the warnings given by Moses, and to the series of plagues, one after the other. G‑d had trapped Pharaoh into a position of defiance, and seemingly there was nothing the Egyptian king could do. He had to follow the course inexorably leading to destruction.

Our Sages comment on this. How is this possible? Surely G‑d grants free will? Is it fair to punish Pharaoh if his refusal to recognize G‑d is forced upon him — by G‑d Himself?

One of the most famous explanations of this puzzle is that given by the Maimonides. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart was itself a punishment for his cruel treatment of the Jewish people. When a person does bad he gets trapped into a position from which he cannot escape. This itself is part of the punishment for his crime.1

Thus we find also a story in the Talmud about a rabbi, named Elisha the son of Abuya but called Acher, "the other one," who left the path of Judaism. A number of reasons are given for this, including the influence of Greek culture, perplexity at the suffering of the innocent and drawing the wrong conclusions from a mystical experience. Consequently he stopped keeping Jewish law. Then, at a certain point in his wayward life he heard a heavenly voice say: "Repent, wayward children — except for Acher."2 He later gave this as an excuse for the fact that he never repented.

The exclusion of Acher from the general invitation to repent was itself part of his punishment, as in the case of Pharaoh.

However, Jewish teaching in all its different dimensions is not so simple. An important commentary on the Talmud, discussing the case of Acher, states: "However, he should not have taken any notice of this... Nothing stands before repentance."3

Chassidic teachings tell us that however deeply a person has sunk, and even if it seems that G‑d has trapped him in his own evil — repentance is always possible. It might be more difficult than usual, even much more difficult, even incredibly difficult — but it is always possible. Trapped? No, not trapped. Anyone, even the ancient Pharaoh, can always break out of the trap and return to G‑d. We are always free.4