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Free Will: Is it Just Smoke & Mirrors

When learning Parshat Va'ara, one is forced to ask whether or not Pharaoh really had any choice as to what to do. The verse states, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart and I shall multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not listen to you and I will put my hand against Egypt and remove my people with great judgments." Many questions can be posed based upon these two verses. 1) If Hashem hardens Pharaoh's heart, why does Hashem also tell Moshe that Pharaoh won't listen, indicating that Pharaoh really could relent and send the Jews out? 2) If Hashem is hardening Pharaoh's heart, how can Hashem then punish Pharaoh and his people? What choice did they have? 3) Is Hashem merely the Puppet Master showing us his strength?
While there are many explanations, I would like to present a possible answer. We always have free will. Pharaoh was never forced to do anything. Throughout the entire episode, he has time to think about what he wants to do and consistently acts the same way. He finds possible reasons as to why things have happened and once he has one, regardless of how flimsy the explanation may be to the innocent bystander, it's good enough for him.
Think about how often one acts in a way that defies logic. People watching the action believe that person to be insane. One may even ask, "Didn't one know it would end up this way?" But to no avail, the person makes grievous errors, one that a logical person would not make. And when asked why one did it, one will normally respond, " I thought that this was the best way to do it." In reality, it all about ego and trying to prove that one is correct, even when the action is totally foolish. Ego can either enhance or destroy a person.
In this case, Pharaoh and his entire kingdom was destroyed because he thought that he could beat the Jewish G-d. Against all logic, he watched his land be destroyed and never once thought that he really wrong. He thought that he could outlast the carnage. Of course, we know that he was wrong.
What one needs to do is to take a lesson from Pharaoh's arrogance and realize that one is not "large and in charge." One has to look at the long-term results of one's actions and decide if one's present actions will get one to where one needs to be...namely following the road that Hashem set down in the Torah. One can be like Pharaoh and set out on the road of self-destruction or that of Moshe and the road of self-improvement. Which road do you want to be on?