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yesh omrim

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Orders of desire

26 January 2004

I’ve been obsessing over the primaries all last week when I should have been reading the parshah, so rather than compose a drash about it, I’m going to borrow somebody else’s. The following is paraphrased from Rabbi Yehudah Schnall, one of my teachers at Darche Noam. He offers an answer to a question which commentators have argued about for centuries: if God “hardened Pharoah’s heart” to prevent him from liberating the Jews, how is this consistent with the doctrine that every person has free will? What is this “hardening the heart,” anyway?

Rabbi Schnall, who has a doctorate in philosophy, says that some philosophers distinguish between “first-order desires” and “second-order desires.” For example, an alcoholic may want to drink (first-order desire), but at the same time want to not want to drink (second-order desire). Generally speaking, when someone feels a conflict between a first-order and a second-order desire, he or she will identify himself or herself with the second-order desire. “I want to stop drinking, but I just can’t.”

Now, consider Pharoah’s response to the plagues. Anyone in his position could see that the cost of the plagues’ destruction outweighed any benefit from keeping the Jews enslaved, and be tempted to free the Jews for the greater good of the Egyptians. But if Pharoah didn’t believe that freeing the slaves was the moral thing to do, he would feel coerced into doing it, and he would wish he had the strength of character to tell Moses to take a hike. “I am the absolute ruler of the most powerful nation in the world,” he would think, “a deity in my own right, and these descendants of Jacob deserve to be my slaves. If I were a better Pharoah, I wouldn’t let myself sully the honor of Egypt by freeing six hundred thousand slaves just because my ex-courtier claims to be their god’s prophet and shows me a few magic tricks.”

And so, the Eternal gave Pharoah enough willpower for that second-order desire to remain in control. At any time, Pharoah was free to recognize God’s moral sovereignty, free the Jews, and end the plagues. But he chose otherwise.