A. Historical background
After G-d reveals Himself to Abraham, he makes a covenant with him and tells him that his descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land (Source 1). The Jewish people go to Egypt (Source 2). and after years of enslavement, G-d decides that the time has come to redeem them (Source 3). G-d sends Moses to speak with Pharaoh and warn him that He will punish the Egyptians for what they did to the Jews (Source 4).
B. Free Choice
Maimonides teaches that G-d doesn’t predetermine who will be righteous or wicked, rather each person has the freedom to choose between good and evil. His reasoning is that were G-d to preordain human conduct it would be unfair to reward goodness and punish evil.
The obvious question is, if so, why were the Egyptians punished? It was by Divine design that the Jews were enslaved! Maimonides explains that G-d had only decreed that the Egyptian nation as a collective would enslave the Jews, but the individual Egyptian had the choice not to be a part of it. However, notes Raavad , if each individual would have personally chosen against slavery, G-d’s edict wouldn’t have been carried out! Therefore, some Egyptians were required to enslave the Jews, so why are they being punished?
Driving Raavad’s question home, the Rebbe adds even if the individuals would have been able to resist the decree, Pharaoh himself certainly couldn’t! If Pharaoh wouldn’t approve of it, the enslavement of the Jews could not have taken place. Why is Pharaoh being punished?
C. Subject to Change
The Rebbe cites another passage of Maimonides, explaining how to weed out false prophets. If a prophecy for good isn’t fulfilled, the person is a false prophet. But if a prophecy for bad things to come isn’t fulfilled, that doesn’t prove the person is a false prophet, for negative prophecies are subject to change (Source 6).
Maimonides supports this with a story from the Torah: Jeremiah prophesied that the Jewish people will soon be under Babylonian rule and Chananiah prophesied the opposite—G-d will upend the Babylonian rule. Jeremiah told Chananiah that if his prophecy of future good does not come to fruition, he will be deemed a false prophet, however if his own prophecy of doom doesn’t materialize, it proves nothing, for G-d can always “change his mind” when it comes to harsh decrees (Source 7).
With this in mind, the Rebbe explains why Pharaoh and the Egyptians were punished: Although enslaving the Jews was a Divine decree, G-d could have recanted, thus, the decree did not obligate Pharaoh. If he would have refrained from carrying it out, G-d might have changed His mind.
Indeed, a Roman general once refused to take part in the destruction of Jerusalem and ran off and converted (Source 8). Moses also refused to be a part of G-d’s plans to destroy the Jewish people, telling G-d to “erase” him from the Torah, and ultimately persuading G-d to forgive His people.
In addition to the idea of free choice, there is another powerful lesson for us all: Never give up. Even if G-d has decreed, He can still change His mind. This is also seen in a story with King Chizkiyahu, where though G-d had decided to punish him, it still was not too late (Sources 9 and 10).