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Home » Free Choice

Tazria Metzora: Do We Really Have Free Choice?

Submitted by on April 22, 2012 – 3:36 amNo Comment | 6,039 views

When We Are Free
Those among us raised in free societies, whose earliest impressions were molded by values of democracy, cherish the principle of free choice. We believe deeply that the freedom to choose is integral to the human condition and we intuitively reject notions of pre-determinsm.

We cannot stomach the idea that one is destined to comfort and another to suffering, one to freedom another to slavery, one to wealth and another to poverty. All men were created equal was the clarion call of America’s founding fathers.  Equal opportunity for all was the dream of the fledgling colonies. No man shall have the right to rule over another, was the cry that triggered its civil war.

But citizens of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes are not so certain. They know firsthand that it is possible to strip a human of free choice. They know that not all humans are treated equally. Some are bothered by this and are moved to revolt. Others are sanguine and take it in stride. Free choice you say, says who, ask they.

As Jews we measure our instincts by the Torah. We are familiar with the famous dictum Ubacharta Bachayim, you shall choose life.[i] The Torah’s use of the word, choose, enshrines the principle of free choice. But many are surprised to learn that this is not always so.

Before birth, the Talmuidic sages taught, G-d declares whether we will be wise or foolish, wealthy or poor, tall or short.[ii] These things are predetermined, which means that the choices that lead to our destined paths are pre determined. “The steps of man are paved by G-d,” proclaimed the Psalmist.[iii] Every turn, every step and every choice is pre-selected by G-d for a purpose known to Him.

The Torah only enshrines our freedom to choose in the arena of ethics. We must place the Torah’s call to choose life in context. The verse before that states, “See, I have put before you life and good, death and evil. That I command you today to love G-d your Lord and to … observe His commandments, edicts and laws.” It is with respect to such matters that the Torah endows our choices with freedom as our sages declared, “All is in the hands of G-d, but for fear of G-d.” [iv]

But Why?
Of course this raises the question why G-d gave us freedom in this one arena and denied it to us in every other. The simple answer is that G-d wanted to reward us for our choices, which can only be fair if they are made freely. But this only begs the question, why G-d wanted to reward us in the first place.

The deeper answer is that G-d is the essence of goodness and wanted to bestow the ultimate kind of goodness. Knowing that goodness is most appreciated when it is earned, furthermore, being denied the opportunity to earn our way drains our soul of meaning and fulfillment, G-d granted us the opportunity to choose behaviors that earn us reward. This way we not only collect reward we also appreciate it. [v]

The Party
until this point we discussed the mechanics of choice from our point of view. Let us now discuss it from G-d’s point of view to the extent that the human mind can grasp such things.

G-d’s purpose in creation was so that His torah could be studied and practiced in it. It was certainly His desire to create the world, but only as a means to an end, the end being the study and practice of Torah. In a sense therefore, the Torah is G-d’s inner desire whereas creation is his extraneous will.

Let us use an analogy from everyday life. Suppose you are shopping for a car. You desire a car – period. You are also willing to part with thirty- thousand dollars, but that’s not what brought you to the showroom. That is your extraneous will, to which you must consent, to accomplish your inner desire.

Now that we have related it to your life let us relate it back to G-d using another analogy. Suppose a king wanted to celebrate with five of his best friends, but he desired a festive atmosphere with thousands of people in attendance. He didn’t care which of his subjects attended. So long as thousands attended, the celebrations would strike the festive mood that he desired for the party with his intimate circle. The throngs thus represent the king’s outer will. His intimate friends represent his inner desire.

To ensure a proper atmosphere, the king orchestrated every last detail of the party. The throngs in attendance were acutely aware of the choreographed setting, scripted etiquette and regimented expectations.  At the king’s table however, a different atmosphere prevailed. Here, the regimented planning wasn’t discernible. On the contrary, the king desired an informal celebration, where spontaneity would be encouraged and comportment and decorum wouldn’t be regulated.

The friends were aware that the king desired their congenial comradeship, the masses were aware that the king expected a particular comportment from them. From his friends the king desired, to the masses, he dictated.

The friends comported themselves with dignity, according the king the highest honor, but only because they sensed that the king wished for them to choose this course. The masses on the other hand didn’t have a choice, they were acutely aware that the king demanded it from them.

This analogy can be applied, after a fashion, to G-d. G-d created the world so the Torah would be practiced in it. To make this work He orchestrated every last detail of His creation and made a world that operates precisely according to His plan. However, with respect to the Torah that He wants us to study, He took a different approach.

Here G-d communicated His desire to be worshipped and studied. He didn’t say, you must, but I want. The emphasis wasn’t so much on what He forced us to do, as it was with the world at large, where every detail was dictated, but on what He wanted for Himself. Though everything is in His hands even in this arena, the overarching thrust here was on His wish. It wasn’t so much about us having no other choice, but to do his bidding, but on what we are able do for Him. We are able to fulfill His desire. [vi]

By sharing His desire with us, He empowered us. He demonstrated that we have the key to unlock His happiness and the power to fulfill His wishes. Power comes with choice – If you don’t have choice, you don’t have power. By asking us to fulfill His wishes He implied that we can choose to comply or not. His advice and heartfelt request is that we comply. That we choose life. [vii]

[i] Deuteronomy 30: 19.

[ii] Midrash Tanchumah, Pekudei.

[iii] Psalms 37: 23.

[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Brachot; 33b.

[v]This teaching is explained at length in the first few chapters of Derech Hashem by Rabbi Lazato. This explanation is also not sufficient as it merely begs another question. Why didn’t G-d fashion our nature to appreciate free gifts and thus spare Himself the messy need for Free Choice?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once explained (11 Nissan 5772) that G-d wanted to give us the opportunity to partner with Him in the task of creation. He made the world and He gave us the chance to perfect it through our actions. If we wouldn’t have free choice we wouldn’t be full partners. We would be His robotic arms, acting out His dictates with no choice in the matter. Giving us free choice enabled us to be just like him as it were. Just as He was free to create the world, so are we free to perfect it and partner with Him in the task of creation.

[vi] We must be careful here lest we tread on slippery slopes. This is not to suggest that G-d and we are somehow on  equal footing and we can provide for Him. That is a preposterous notion. If you think carefully you will note that the king’s friends are also not on the same level as the king; the king always remains the king and they are forever his subjects. It is just that the king opts to suspend the usual rules of conduct and act as if his friends were on an equal social footing with him, authorized to behave as friends rather than subjects.

It is somewhat similar with respect to G-d. At the very highest levels of G-d’s internal desire He transcends the desire to dictate. At this point it can be said of G-d, “If you are righteous what can you give Him?” (Job 35:7). Here G-d tolerates the notion that a human might or might not obey His will and therefore we are given the sense that there might be a choice in the matter and that indeed we can choose to serve Him or not. In this, there is great intimacy. Where G-d dictates we are mere subjects with no choice. Where G-d permits choice, we become His intimates so to speak.

[vii] This doesn’t suggest that the Mitzvot are requests rather than commandments. They are commandments, but G-d doesn’t force us to obey them. He leaves the choice to us. This essay is based on LK”S v. 5 p.66 f.n. 70. Sefere Hamarim 5666, pp 51-54 and Avadim Hayinu Siddur Dach.

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