“The Limits of Free Will”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

During the period of the Ten Days of Penitence, and especially with the imminent arrival of Yom Kippur, it is most appropriate to inquire about the limits of human free will.

Maimonides writes in his classic work, Mishneh Torah:

Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so…and there is none who can prevent him from doing that which is good or that which is evil. (Laws Concerning Repentance, 5:1)

Every human being may become righteous like Moses, our Teacher, or wicked like Jeroboam;…there is no one that coerces him or decrees what he is to do, or draws him to either of the two ways; but every person turns to the way which he desires, spontaneously and of his own volition. Thus Jeremiah said, “Out of the mouth of the Most High proceeds not evil and good?” (Lamentations 3:38); that is to say, the Creator does not decree either that a man shall be good or that he shall be wicked. (Laws Concerning Repentance, 5:2).

…the Creator neither puts compulsion on the children of men nor decrees that they should do either good or evil, but it is all left to their discretion. (Laws Concerning Repentance, 5:3).

Our rabbis thus emphasize that Teshuva is an act of pure free will, about which the Talmud in Brachot 33b states, all is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven. On this, Rashi comments that “choosing whether to be righteous or wicked is not in the hands of G-d. He has given this choice over to human beings, whom G-d has given two paths, allowing them to choose fear of Heaven.”

Nevertheless, if we scan Jewish theological and Halachic literature, we will find many rabbinic statements implying that, when it comes to fear of Heaven, there is no individual choice . The Talmud in Shabbat 138b states: Our rabbis learned, when the elders entered Kerem b’Yavne, they stated that Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel. As the prophet Amos states in 8:11-12, “Behold, the days come, says the L-rd G-d, that I will send famine in the land, not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the L-rd. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; and they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the L-rd, and shall not find it.”

Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai said, G-d forbid that the Torah be forgotten in Israel. After all, it states in Deuteronomy 31:21, “ Kee lo tee’sha’chach mee’pee zahr’oh,” For it [the Torah] shall not be forgotten from the mouths of their offspring. But then, what do I understand from the verse in Amos, “and they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the L-rd, and shall not find it?” Rather, it means that they will not find clear, definitive Jewish learning together with Jewish law in one place.

The Midrash Kohelet Rabba 1 cites Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who comments on the verse in Isaiah 65:22: “For as the days of a tree, are the days of my people.” The tree symbolizes only Torah. Who then was created for whom? The Torah for the people of Israel or the people of Israel for the Torah? Is it not the Torah for the people of Israel?! And since Torah was created for the people of Israel, and exists eternally, Israel, who was created in the merit of the Torah, how much more so?

The definitive statements of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the surface, clearly contradict the principle of freedom of choice. After all, learning Torah is a mitzvah, a commandment, and a choice given to every human being. It is not determined in Heaven. Individuals can choose to forget the Torah that they learned, or choose never to learn Torah. Therefore, how can there be a guarantee that Torah will never be forgotten from Israel? That question applies as well to the eternal existence of the Jewish people, since every individual can freely choose to cross the red lines, to assimilate among the nations of the world, as we know all too well today. If that is the case, what guarantee is there to the eternality of the Jewish people, when all depends on people’s freedom to choose?

Rabbi Yaakov Philber explains that this discrepancy is based on an incomplete understanding of the concept of free will. It is true that freedom of choice is a basic principle of creation; as Maimonides defined it (Laws Concerning Repentance 5:3), “This doctrine is a major principle and a fundamental pillar of the Torah.” But freedom of will is not an exclusive or ultimate principle. After all, the eternal existence of the people of Israel is also a fundamental principle of creation, as declared by the prophet, Jeremiah, 31:34-35, “Thus says the L-rd, Who giveth the sun for light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and the stars for the light by night, Who stirs up the sea, that the waves thereof roar, the L-rd of hosts is His name. If these ordinances depart from before Me, says the L-rd, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever.”

Clearly, the eternality of the Jewish people is more fundamental than the principle of freedom of choice. Consequently, if ever there is a conflict between these two principles and if, due to the freedom of choice that is given to the human being, the existence of the people of Israel is placed in jeopardy, then the Ultimate Supervisor cancels the freedom of choice given to individuals, forcing and coercing them to behave in a manner that ensures the secure future of the people of Israel. As the prophet in Ezekiel 20:33 states, “G-d promises, surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with fury poured out, will I be King over you.”

When Moses came down from the heavens and informed the people of Israel of the imminent delivery of the Torah, the people answered in unison, Exodus 24:7, “All that G-d has stated, we shall do and we shall understand.” Nevertheless, tradition has it (Talmud Shabbat 88a) that at the time of the giving of the Torah, G-d held the overturned Mt. Sinai like an [inverted] cask over the heads of the people, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, good. If not, here you will be buried. Tosephot (commentary on the Talmud) asks on that Talmudic statement: Why did G-d turn the mountain over their heads? After all, they had already previously declared, “We shall do and we shall understand”?

The Maharal of Prague, in his book Tiferet Israel, chapter 32, answers: “The reason that G-d lifted the mountain over their heads is so that the Israelites would not be in a position to say that they accepted the Torah of their own volition, and if they choose, they could have rejected the Torah. This implication, that the Torah is dependent upon the will of the Jewish people, is false, since the world is dependent upon the Torah. If not for the Torah, the world would return to its original status of Tohoo and Vohoo, complete anarchy and chaos. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the Torah depends upon the choice of the people of Israel, but rather that G-d forced them to accept the Torah, which is the only way to understand it.” It is clear from the words of the Maharal that the principle of the dependence of Israel on the Torah trumps the principle of individual free will, which is why the Torah was given under coercion, to definitively teach that the Torah does not depend upon the choice of the people.

Thus, we see that the promise found in this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, that the Torah will not be forgotten from the mouths of your children, is not only a guarantee for the existence of the Torah, but also a guarantee for the existence of the people of Israel.

The Midrash in Sifra comments on the verse in Leviticus 26:44, “I [G-d] did not reject and I did not despise them.” What remaining benefit did the people have that G-d did not despise them or reject them? After all, all the wonderful gifts that they had were taken away (the Temple, the Ark, its furnishings). What then remained to their benefit? Only the Torah. “For if the Torah did not exist, the people of Israel would not be at all different from the other nations of the world.”

After the Holocaust, with decimation of European Jewish life and the loss of so many outstanding Torah scholars, it seemed as if Torah would soon be forgotten. On the streets of Israel, the words of G-d seemed to be an embarrassment. Many threw off their traditions of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. Yet, without much fanfare, the words of the Torah came alive, “Kee lo tee’sha’chach mee’pee zahr’oh,” For it [the Torah] shall not be forgotten from the mouths of their offspring! Heavenly powers wrought a revolution. In short order, hundreds of new Yeshivot were established throughout the Jewish world. Thousands of Jewish students from Bnei Braq, Gateshead, New York and Lakewood raised their heads, sat upright and filled the entire land of Israel and many diaspora countries with Torah.

Those who attempt to prevent the growth and expansion of Torah cannot vanquish G-d’s will, Who wishes to do good to Israel. G-d’s will that Torah become the mightiest force, and that Torah shall reign throughout the world forever, shall surely prevail.

During these special Days of Penitence and on the eve of Yom Kippur, we must reaffirm our commitment that the Torah will not be forgotten from the mouths of all Jewish children. By providing our children with quality Jewish education, setting examples for them by setting aside time for our own Torah study, we can send a powerful message about the centrality of Torah in our lives.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah and a Chatima Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, September 25th through nightfall on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012. Have a most meaningful fast.