One of the most perplexing aspects of the Torah's story of the Exodus is God’s hardening of Pharaoh's heart. We ask: Why did God "harden Pharaoh's heart" so that he would not listen to Moses' plea to "let my people go"? Why was Pharaoh not given "free will" to make the decision on his own?
Traditional Torah commentators have tried to explain this phrase while insisting that the king still had free will. I find those commentaries to be largely unsatisfying.
I want to look at this question in a different way. While I certainly believe that we have free will and that God does not micromanage our lives, the Torah is written from a different perspective, at least regarding the Exodus. The Exodus from Egypt is presented as God's plan that God had disclosed to Abraham hundreds of years before when God told him that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years and would leave with "great signs and wonders." God has pre-planned all the details of the Exodus with the goal of bringing these "great signs and wonders" to the world.
In order to make that happen, God clearly uses Pharaoh as a tool in this saga. Pharaoh's role in the "script" is to refuse to listen to Moses so that God would have reason to bring signs of power and strength — the plagues and the splitting of the sea — to make God's reputation and name great to all who witnessed God’s power, Egyptians and Hebrews alike.
Had Pharaoh agreed to Moses' demands from the beginning, these expressions of power would never materialize. So, from the Torah's perspective, there is no reason to make excuses for God's "hardening Pharaoh's heart." It is an essential part of the story, and it was all part of God's plan to make God's power known in the world.
But, unlike Pharaoh, we are not captive to any script. We decide whether to be compassionate in any given situation; in that spirit, there is one commentary which I particularly find meaningful. Many commentators point out that for the first several plagues, we read: "Pharaoh's heart was hardened." It is only after several plagues that we read: "God hardened Pharoah's heart". These commentaries point out that originally Pharaoh hardened his own heart but that only after God saw that this was Pharaoh's choice did God then make it impossible for Pharaoh to change his approach.
The lesson here is that when we act in a particular way, positively or negatively, we gather momentum to continue to act in that way. Whether we attribute it to God supporting us in the direction we choose to go or whether we just see it as a matter of human nature, the truth is that one action or attitude leads to a similar action or attitude as we become accustomed to acting in a particular way.
Compassion — the opposite of hard heartedness — is one of the most foundational of all human emotions and one of the most vital. However, there may be times when we decide that compassion should not guide our actions. For example, if survival as an individual or a nation is at stake, we might find that focusing on compassion would make us less able to do what is necessary to protect ourselves and those dear to us.
But that being said, once we begin to minimize the importance of compassion, we find ourselves in the situation that Pharaoh faced: becoming so accustomed to acting hard-heartedly that it becomes our modus operandi — the natural way in which we live our lives under all circumstances. We have to be extraordinarily careful because once we have decided that our lives are better without considering compassion, even in one instance, we find ourselves on a path that could lead us to becoming truly hard-hearted, devoid of compassion.
This is the lesson that we must learn — as individuals, as communities, and as nations. We have free will to be compassionate. And we suspend our compassion at a great cost.