Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

The Choice is Ours

"R'ei 'anochi notein lifneichem hayom b'racha uk'lala" - "Behold, I place before you today, blessing and curse." This prophetic statement by Moshe Rabbeinu, echoed practically verbatim in Parshat Nitzavim (30:15), encapsulates the fundamental principle of free choice. Hashem directs, commands, expects, but "I place before you" - the final decision is Man's alone as to which path he will choose. Indeed, this element of mankind is so central to creation that many commentaries (see Malbim for example) interpret the phrase "tselem elokim" -- "image of G-d" (B'raishit 1:27), in which Man was created, to mean that just as G-d has free choice, so does Man.

Philosophers of all religions throughout the ages have grappled with the apparent contradiction between "b'chira" - free choice, and "y'di'a" -- Divine Omniscience. If G-d knows what we will choose, then how are we free to choose it? Many approaches have been offered to resolve this contradiction including those clearly beyond the pale of normative Jewish thought. Here, we focus on the famous "non-answer" of the Rambam. In his Hilchot T'shuva (Laws of Repentance 5:5), in the midst of elaborating on the truth of the principle of free choice and its ramifications for human culpability and ability to repent, Rambam writes, in answer to this question:

"Know that the answer to this question is immense...we have already explained in Hilchot Y'sodei HaTorah (Fundamentals of Torah) that the Holy One Blessed be He does not know [things] with a separate knowledge like people whose self and mind are separate. Rather, He, may His name be exalted, and His Knowledge are one. And the intelligence of Man cannot grasp this concept fully. Just as Man cannot comprehend the Truth of [the essence of] the Creator, ... so too, Man does not have the ability to grasp the Knowledge of the Creator."

Ra'avad immediately questions the sagacity of raising a difficult question without giving an understandable answer. However, it would appear that the Rambam's approach already appears in Tanach. The Rambam himself interprets the phrase in Isaiah (55:8), read on fast days, "ki lo mach'sh'votai mach'sh'votaichem" as "My (Divine) thinking is not similar to your (human) thinking." Malbim, in his commentary to a different passage in Isaiah (40:27-28), read on Shabbat Nachamu, explains that the Rambam's question and answer are already discussed by the prophet. Malbim interprets "mei'Elokai mishpati ya'avor" (40:27) - "and my judgment is removed from G-d" -- as the statement of one questioning how he can be accountable for his actions if G-d already knows what they will be. The prophet's answer is: "ein cheiker l't'vunato" (40:28) - "there is no [ability of] analysis of His Wisdom."

This contradiction is, according to many commentaries, alluded to in Pirkei 'Avot. R. Akiva states (3:15): "Hakol tsafuy, v'har'shut n'tuna" - "All is 'tsafuy;' and permission is given." R. Ovadya miBartenura, in his first interpretation, translates "tsafuy" as "seen" indicating G-d's all-seeing "eye" referred to as well in Chapter 2 Mishna 1; no one can hide his actions from G-d. However, in his second interpretation, as well as in the commentary of Rambam and R. Yonah, "tsafuy" is translated as "foreseen." According to this reading, the Mishna is stating: "Even though everything is foreseen, permission is still granted to choose." Tosfot Yom Tov from Midrash Shmuel and Tiferet Yisrael both make the following piercing insight. The contradiction between free choice and foreknowledge only exists in the human mind, which recognizes a clearly defined and distinct past, present, and future. If Hashem knows the future already, then how can it play out according to human choice? However, past, present, and future are all functions of time. For Hashem, the Creator of time, past, present, and future collapse into one. When Hashem "sees" into the future, He does not witness an event that is yet to occur. He is able to witness the event as it is occurring. Now, clearly, if an observer would state that someone is currently engaging in a certain activity, no one would be troubled by any contradiction between the statement of the observer, and the free-choice of the actor. The same is true concerning the "sight" of G-d. He sees the future as the present. Midrash Shmuel adds that the Mishna alludes to this by using the word "tsafuy" which literally means "seen," rather than "yadu'a" - "known." "Seen" indicates observing the present. Thus, G-d's knowledge of the future is similar to our knowledge of the present. The above-mentioned commentaries suggest that this is the intention of the Rambam when he states that Hashem's knowledge -- which is not subject to time -- is fundamentally different from human knowledge - which is subject to time. The concept of a Being not subject to time and space seems very foreign to basic, human observation. Therefore the prophet declares: "lo mach'sh'votai mach'sh'votaichem" -- realize that G-d's knowledge is totally unlike your own.

Perhaps we can suggest that the Borai 'Olam placed a hint of this notion of being beyond time in the Creation itself. According to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, an object traveling at the speed of light is not subject to Time or Dimension. Now, if scientists can theorize that a physical entity, but a mere creation of the Master Creator, enjoys the quality of timelessness, all the more so can we appreciate that the Creator Himself has this quality. (See the Hebrew publication Nitzozot (reprinted in Counterpoint) for a fascinating exposition on the parallelism between the qualities of light and spirituality.) It is not surprising then, that Hashem and his Torah are throughout Tanach compared to light (see for example Isaiah 2:5 and Psalms 27:1).

We live in an age where the popular, "politically-correct" notion is totally antithetical to the principle of free choice. Even certain psychological schools of thought negate the concept of free choice. Many would claim that a murderer is not culpable for his crime because of his upbringing. An individual living a deviant lifestyle is not responsible for his actions because "that's just the way he is." The Torah clearly indicates the falsehood of these claims. It teaches us unequivocally -- the choice is ours, and ours alone to make. For different people, some decisions might be more difficult than for other people, but the choice of actions remains ours always (see Rav Dessler in Michtav Me'Eliyahu (Vol. 1) for a crucial discourse on "The Point of Choice"). May we always strive to fulfill the directive of Moshe Rabbeinu: "u'vacharta baChayim!" (Nitzavim 30:19) - "Choose Life!"

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