Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Free Choice and Seeking Out Hashem

Midrash Rabba (4:3) comments on the opening verses of parshas Re'eh (Devarim 11:26-28) - "See I have placed before you today blessing and curse. The blessing if you hearken to the commandments of Hashem... And the curse, if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem...":

א"ר חגי ולא עוד שנתתי לכם שני דרכים אלא שנכנסתי לפנים משורת הדין ואמרתי לכם ובחרת בחיים.
R. Chaggai stated: No only have I placed two paths before you (ibid.), but I have gone way beyond (lifnim mishuras hadin) and have told you, "And you shall choose life!" (ibid. (Nitzavim) 30:19).

R. Chaggai's meaning is unclear. Why was it in any way necessary for Hashem to tell us to choose life; isn't this the obvious choice? Does one need to be told not to swallow poison or not to jump off a roof? And if the world is structured in a way where the sanctified, moral lifestyle required by the Torah is not as obvious as the laws of nature, how does Hashem's telling us to choose life add anything over the original commandments themselves? Furthermore, why is Hashem's telling His nation to choose life considered "going beyond the letter of the law"?

The commentaries on this Midrash offer different approaches to solve these apparent difficulties (see Maharzu and Eshed Hanechalim). Perhaps we can suggest another interpretation. Elsewhere,[1] we presented the approach of Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim, Avos 4:2) that ultimately the human being, created b'tselem Elokim, containing a G-dly neshama, naturally would tend toward choosing the good, that which binds him to his source. It is only in order to allow for free-will that evil appears so attractive initially. However, this initial attractiveness is only superficial. The true inner dimension of the human personality wishes to choose only the good. Based on this, Rav Chaim explains the teaching of Ben Azzai (ibid.): "הוי רץ למצוה קלה ובורח מן העבירה - run after mitzvos and flee from sin." This statement implies that initially sins pursue us and mitzvos flee from us. Doesn't this statement contradict the concept of free choice if the choices are not equally appealing? Rather, since the inner personality only craves the good, Hashem gave a "handicap" to sins initially to make them appear as if they are pursuing us and are more alluring; the opposite is true with respect to mitzvos.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt"l (Kovetz Ma'amarim) presents a similar approach concerning true and false beliefs. The neshama and intellect have absolute clarity concerning fundamental emunos, but the pasuk teaches "כי השוחד יעור עיני חכמים - bribery will blind the eyes of sages" (Devarim 16:19). This bribery takes the form of physical desires which even a child becomes accustomed to from birth when he learns to crave food. This approach can be extended to the drive for self-aggrandizement as well as envy both of which cloud sound judgment. As stated by Chazal (Avos 4:21):"הקנאה, התאוה והכבוד מוציאין את האדם מן העולם". Rav Elchanan's approach, although initially applied to beliefs, can readily be extended to other sins. As Chazal tell us (Sota 3a), "אין אדם חוטא אלא אם נכנס בו רוח שטות - a person does not sin unless a spirit of temporary insanity (irrational thought) overcomes him."

Based on the above, we can suggest that the deeper meaning of R. Chaggai's statement is as follows. Hashem could have created a world in which the choice between good and evil was not in any way influenced by the inner personality. The total human personality could have been formed in a way where no fundamental aspect of it tended toward good or evil. However, this would lead to many more failures in the quest to achieve perfection and obey the Divine calling. In the Creator's mercy, He formed us, as mentioned above, whereby our must fundamental aspect of our existence, the neshama, strives only for good whereas evil is only alluring on the surface. Once we succeed in removing its false veneer, the reality of the absolute good of avodas Hashem emerges as having been within us all along. As an act of "going beyond", Hashem did not fashion us in a manner truly 50/50 in terms of the balance of good and evil. The evil side is only appealing on the surface; the good reverberates within our very essence. Thus, the chances of success are much greater. This is the Divine command of "Choose life"; it echoes and resonates within the inner self.[2] Similarly, the Ba'al HaTanya expounds at length upon the ahava tiv'is, the inherent love of G-d present in every Jew, and contrasts it with the ahava sichlis, the intellectual love arrived at through intense and sometimes tortuous study. The ahava tiv'is is not readily accessible but is always there ready to be awakened by the ahava sichlis.

The sweet singer of Israel, King David, states in the Psalm recited traditionally in the upcoming month of Elul, "לך אמר לבי בקשו פני, את פניך ד' אבקש - to you (or "from you") my heart says 'seek my Presence!'. [Indeed], your Presence I shall seek" (Tehillim 27:8). On this verse, Rashi comments, "בשבילך בשליחותיך אומר (לי) לבי בקשו כלכם ישראל את פני ואני שומע לו, את פניך ה' אבקש. לך ... במקומך בא אלי לבי לומר כן. - because of you, as your agent, my heart says, 'seek my Presence - all of Israel' and I obey... in Your place [or "representing you"], my heart comes to me to say that." Although this Rashi has been interpreted in various ways, one prominent understanding corresponds to our above presentation. Our heart, our inner essence, demands of us to seek out G-d[3]. It is not only the external Divine command heard at Sinai and echoing ever since that informs us of the true path, but it is our very essence which calls to us constantly, "Choose life!".[4]

As we approach the preparatory month of Elul and begin to hear the sound of the shofar, let us hope that we listen not only to the external call of the d'var Hashem but connect to our very essence which constantly reinforces that same message.


[1]See Y'fas Toar - Avoiding the Temptation of Sin.

[2]See Rav Schwab on Prayer on the last blessing of kerias shema for other examples where the concept "the word of G-d" refers to some other means of communication other than direct Divine command.

[3] With much appreciation to Rav Avraham Willig who, on the jacket of his inspiring CD, Lev Avos: The Willig Family Sings, highlighted this verse and Rashi's commentary on it (and set the passuk to a beautiful niggun).

[4] For further expansions of the themes discussed herein, see The Two Goats and the True Self and The Choice is Ours.

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