A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard.
I need a photo-opportunity.
I want a shot at redemption.
Don’t want to end up a cartoon, in a cartoon graveyard. 
This is life. Nobody who thinks for more than a minute about life- his or her life- wants to end up as a “cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.” We want “a shot at redemption,” a “photo opportunity,” a chance to be something meaningful, to leave a meaningful mark on humanity if we can, to have a value that goes beyond our moment here- to not, in truth at the end of the day, have been meaningless. Particularly not if we happen to be the king, the Pharaoh, of the super-power of the planet and the demagogue of the most advanced culture and civilization to boot. No, then we are very much driven to want to, in the end, have our intentions be what stands the test of time, of relevance. But the wheels of history grind ever so slowly, yet ever so fine.
“Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart (i.e., emotions) SO THAT I can/will demonstrate my signs and wonders in all of Egypt.” We understand this to mean that Hashem took away Pharaoh’s freedom of choice. He made it impossible for Pharaoh to choose to do the right thing, to give the slave population a break, a spiritual respite to sojourn in the wilderness for a few days. ‘I will make that impossible- SO THAT I can punish him’ is the common understanding.
Now, folks, Torah 101 teaches us that the premise (one of the premises) of our understanding of our relationship to the constant creator of the world (aka G-d) is that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,”  i.e., you don’t get ‘punished’ (I recoil at that understanding, as it’s both sloppy and inaccurate- but that’s fodder for a different piece) unless you had free choice and chose to do A when you knew you should have and could have done B- B of course being the right or good thing to have done in that situation. Then it’s ‘tit for tat’ as in “every action [you do] has an equal and opposite reaction [from G-d].” So then red flags get thrown all over the field (fine, yellow, for my fellow football fans) when we read the passage that Hashem will take away Pharaoh’s freedom of choice, bechira, and then beat him up for a choice he was never able to make in the first place!
Really unfair, huh?
Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995)  reading, not just this passage but the whole story of the enslavement and exodus of the Jews from Egypt through his “Torah glasses”  sees a different picture emerge.
What was Pharaoh being ‘punished’ and beaten to do? To let his enslaved, tortured sub-population go. And how did they get into this predicament in the first place, pray tell?
We learn  that Pharaoh put a brick around his own neck and, presumably after reading The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, rallied the masses, but particularly the Hebrews, and spoke of Mother Egypt, and that we all- himself included- are children of the land, and one with the land, and that we should all, therefore, know no dividing bonds, no one greater, no one lesser, and work the land as one. Of course after a few days Pharaoh went back to his very capitalistic, crocodile-shaped Jacuzzi  and the Hebrews went back to work. But true to his untrue word, he had his people support them by bringing them supplies- bricks and mortar- for a month. Then after a month, he said, “supplies!” I mean, “surprise,” “no more supplies!” He then demanded that they continue to output the same amount of production as the month before, which obviously is humanly impossible, and he would have his men beat them daily for not putting out the quota that he knew full well they couldn’t possibly do. It was a game he enjoyed called “Beat the Hebrews.” 
Well, now the sandal is on the other foot, and true to form and pledge, to be fair, Hashem always pays back/reacts using the very same mode that YOU chose. You get to pick your own weapon when you pick a fight with G-d. That’s His rules. So be careful which you pick because He’s gonna get to use the same one when it’s His turn. So now Hashem is saying, “Yes, I will put you in a position- ask you to do something for Me, knowing full well that I have made it impossible for you to do it– JUST LIKE YOU DID TO MY CHILDREN EVERY DAY FOR YEARS! JUST LIKE THAT. JUST. LIKE. THAT.” Stinks, doesn’t it?
But on another level, to return to our “cartoon graveyard” reference above, Pharaoh, like every world leader/oppressor of the Jews after him, wanted them/us to end up as a footnote in the chronicles of history. He wanted them to be soft in the middle and make life so hard for them, play with them, like a cartoon character to later be discarded. It’s been 3,400 years now and they all have had the same agenda. But in the end, it hasn’t once yet worked out that way for them, has it? Only as Jews we get “a shot at redemption, a photo opportunity,” a chance to be something meaningful, to leave a meaningful mark on humanity if we can, to have a value that goes beyond our moment here- to not, in truth at the end of the day, have been meaningless… and it’s one of our greatest attributes that yes, as a nation we remain “soft in the middle.”
1. Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al
2. Sir Isaac Newton
3. My grandfather, in his work Maayan Bais Hashoeva, page 129.
4. R’ Dovid Trenk, my ninth grade rebbe
5. Midrash cited in Talmud Bavli Sotah 11a, expounding on the words “vayasimu alav, they placed on him” Shemos 1-11.
6. a little poetic license