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By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

“If G-d had decreed on a person to be righteous or wicked, or if there were
some factor drawing him, in his basic nature (lit., ‘in his primary
genealogy’), to one particular path, knowledge, personality type, or action,
as invent out of their imagination foolish stargazers (lit., ‘those who
pronounce [based on] the heavens’), how could [G-d] command us through the
Prophets, ‘Do this and do not do this; improve your ways and do not follow
your wickedness’ — [while] it was already decreed upon the person [one way] when he was created, or if his genes (lit., ‘genealogy’) draw him towards
something that it is impossible to depart from? What place would there be
for the entire Torah? And based on what judgment would [G-d] collect from
the sinner or reward the righteous? ‘The One who judges the entire land does
not mete out justice?!’ (Genesis 18:25).

“Do not be surprised and claim how can a person do whatever he pleases, with
his actions given over to him? Can a person do in the world anything without
the permission of his Creator and against His will? Does not the verse
state, ‘All that He pleases G-d does in the heavens and on the earth’
(Psalms 135:6)?

“Know that everything is according to His will even though our deeds are in
our control. How is this? Just as the Creator wills that fire and air rise
up while the waters and the land go downwards, and that the firmament
rotates circularly, and so too the rest of the world’s creations to be
according to their practice that He wishes, so too does G-d wish that man be
granted his own free will, all his actions should be granted to him without
anything forcing or drawing him. Rather, he on his own and using the
understanding G-d has granted him may do anything human beings are able to do.

“Therefore, a person is judged according to his deeds. If he does good they
(i.e., the heavenly tribunal) do good to him and if he does bad they treat
him badly. This is as the prophets say, ‘From your [own] hand was this to
you’ (Malachi 1:9). ‘They too have chosen their paths’ (Isaiah 66:3).
Regarding this matter Solomon stated, ‘Rejoice, youngster in your youth…
[and go in the ways of your heart]… and know that for all these the L-rd
will bring you to judgment’ (Koheles / Ecclesiastes 11:9). Meaning, know
that you have the ability to do and that you will eventually give accounting.”

The Rambam is continuing his discussion of free will, a discourse which will
cover over two chapters. Here the Rambam makes some of his most fundamental
points. He first explains that free will is basically the entire premise of
Judaism. G-d can command us how to behave only because we have the free will
to determine our behavior. And He can likewise reward and punish only
because our actions are our own doing.

The Rambam then turns to one of the great theological difficulties
engendered by the notion of free will. If man can do as he chooses, does that mean
the entire fate of the world is in his hands? If a madman gets ahold of
sufficient weapons of mass destruction, can he destroy the world? But didn’t
the Prophets promise that the Messiah will ultimately arrive to herald the
idyllic End of Days? Or more conventionally, can George kill Steve — or
hurt him or insult him — if it is not G-d’s will? G-d granted Steve 90
years of life. Comes George, exercising his G-d-given free will, and mows
him down at the age of 25. Or even more prosaically, can Sam’s boss chew him
out when Sam does not deserve such treatment on the divine scales? Doesn’t
his boss have the free will to let off some steam? And if so, does it cancel
the Divine providence which we would suppose would protect Sam from
undeserved harm?

The dilemma here is a profound one: How does man’s free will reconcile with
G-d’s control of the world? If we take the concept of free will to its
extreme, then man would presumably be able to thwart G-d’s plans for
humanity, wreck the planet, and bring terrible misery upon mankind — misery
undeserved according to G-d’s perfect justice. Not only would such in itself
be horrible to fathom, but equally bothersome, it would make the world a
very dark and godless place. What happens down here would not be the
manifestation of the will of a perfect and infinitely good Creator. It would
be no more than the cruel, capricious, and arbitrary doing of wicked man.

On the other hand, if G-d does control the world, and every little thing
which happens to us is G-d’s precise will, then we would have to say man’s
free will is severely limited. He can only do (at least to others) what G-d
wanted to happen to them anyway. And of course, this would raise yet another
serious theological difficulty, that we would be forced to say all of the
injustices, all of the terrible evils we see human beings inflict upon one
another in this world are really G-d’s will. “Innocents” are not maimed and
killed in wars and terrorist attacks — only people whom G-d Himself wanted
to harm. Could such horrific manmade catastrophes truly be G-d’s will?

I don’t want this class to get too heavy or lengthy, so I will only attempt
to offer a rough outline of an approach to these issues. I will also mention
that I discussed this issue at greater length in Pirkei Avos (3:19). Anyone
can feel free to view our discussion there.

Whenever one person harms another on this earth, we could basically envision
three levels of Divine involvement:

(a) A’s hurting of B was G-d’s direct will. G-d wanted B to receive harm
just now. A’s choosing to do it was basically volunteering to be G-d’s
emissary, but had he not done so, G-d would have given B an equivalent
amount of harm regardless.

(b) G-d did not want B harmed. A’s actions were against the will of G-d and
actually foiled His plans for humanity. G-d will have to “pick up the
pieces” after the fact, punishing A for his unwarranted act as well as
compensating B for his undeserved suffering. In a bigger sense, G-d will
have to work against the evil designs of man to carry out His plans for the

(c) G-d would not have harmed B had A not done so, but G-d must have
acquiesced to A’s doing. Nothing occurs in this world contrary to G-d’s
will. True, man has free will and can harm others in ways G-d would not have
done Himself. But G-d did allow it to occur.

Now if G-d allowed it, B must have deserved it. But if B deserved it, why
didn’t G-d punish B Himself? The answer is that G-d is merciful — what the
Torah refers to as “slow to anger” (“erech apayim”) (Exodus 33:6, Numbers
14:18). Although we all owe G-d many debts for our sins, He does not pounce
upon us immediately, punishing us every time we fall short. G-d gives us
ample time to repent. However, if A comes along, exercising his free will,
and comes to harm B, G-d so to speak is not particularly inclined to protect
B from the harm he really does deserve. G-d was in no hurry to punish B
Himself. But if A comes along to do it, G-d would hardly bother to “go out
of His way” to protect B.

(Note also that G-d generally does not need perform open miracles to protect
someone if he really deserves Divine protection. A’s gun will misfire, his
aim may fail, he’ll get delayed in traffic. Or B may miss his bus, be stuck
at home with a bad cold, etc. We’ve all heard many stories — especially in
Israel — of people having annoying, unexpected changes of plans and as a
result missing that disaster looming in their paths.)

Above are basically the three approaches to Divine providence versus man’s
free will. It’s actually interesting to note that there is a surprisingly
wide range of opinions among the classical Jewish thinkers — if one studies
their words closely. This is actually not an issue spelled out in the Talmud
— although many individual statements can be marshaled supporting many
shades of opinion. This just tends to reinforce a point I’ve made in the
past (heard from R. Berel Wein) — that Judaism is much more a religion
focused on man’s behavior — how are we to live fulfilling, wholesome lives
on this earth, earning us eternal reward — rather than on how G-d runs the
world. The former is our concern and what the Torah deals with almost
exclusively. The latter is really G-d’s problem.

As I wrote in the referenced class, I feel that approach (c) is the primary
one among Jewish philosophers — that man’s free will can never do anything
against G-d’s will, but can at times “hurry up” G-d’s justice system,
upsetting His “slowness to anger.” The Rambam himself appears more to be in
camp (b) — that all is in man’s hands. Man’s doing is only G-d’s will in
the sense that G-d willed it that man be granted free will. (See even more
strongly the Rambam’s “Shemoneh Perakim” Ch. 8.)

Clearly, this would have to be qualified to some extent since at the very
least G-d is orchestrating history. If not, there would be nothing stopping
man from utterly thwarting G-d’s plans for the universe — and the many
prophecies foretelling it. In fact, Proverbs 21:1 states, “As forks of
water, the heart of a king is in the hands of G-d. However He desire He
inclines it.” The implication, as noted by many Jewish thinkers, is that
major events of world history are most certainly orchestrated by G-d. He
determines the decisions of the high and mighty. (And in fact many U.S.
presidents whom no one expected to be good for Israel were surprisingly
well-inclined and vice versa.) Thus, even if we’d question G-d’s involvement
in the small interactions among individuals, the basic course of world
history is most definitely in G-d’s hands.

Again, this sort of discussion can go on forever, especially if we begin
quoting sources — something I’m quite certain few of my readers would
appreciate. Instead, I’m going to close up fairly quickly having presented
this basic outline. I would, however, like to offer what I feel are two
important quotes from the Talmud on the matter.

Deuteronomy 22:8 states as follow. “When you will build a new house, you
shall make an enclosure for your roof, so that you do not bring blood upon
your house when the faller falls from it.” The Torah thus obligates us to
fence up our roofs / balconies so that a dangerous situation is not created,
possibly resulting in a person falling off our roof and dying.

The Talmud (Shabbos 32a) notes the language of the verse: “when the faller
falls from it.” Why the “faller”? Explains the Talmud that clearly the
person was destined to fall and die: he was a “faller” by nature. My roof
didn’t kill him. If he died, G-d must have willed it; his time had come.

But if so, why the obligation to build an enclosure? Only people who
deserve to die will fall anyway! Answers the Talmud that in heaven “they
bring about merit through the meritorious and guilt through the guilty.”
Meaning, true — only the guilty fall — but I should not volunteer to
become G-d’s rod of chastisement. The very fact that I disobeyed G-d’s
command and neglected to build a protective fence turned me into G-d’s
vehicle for bringing about harm in the world. But again, the harm itself —
certainly in matters of life or death — was decreed by G-d Himself.

On a bigger scale, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) discusses the events which
will precipitate the Messiah’s arrival. After a lengthy debate, the Talmud
follows the opinion of R. Yehoshua: If Israel repents G-d will redeem them
and the Messiah will arrive. If not, “G-d will appoint upon them a king
whose decrees are as harsh as Haman’s, Israel will repent, and this will
bring them to good.”

In other words, it is true that our behavior is in our hands. Much of what
we do on this earth is our own doing — and the often disastrous results are
caused by none other than ourselves. But in the grand picture, G-d
orchestrates world events. (Recall that G-d controls the hearts of kings. He
appoints tyrannical rulers and wills their decrees.) If we repent, we will
merit the Messiah in our own right — and the end will come so much more
smoothly, painlessly — and spectacularly. If not, G-d will bring Messiah
all the same — preceded by our very same repentance. But it’s going to be a
mighty rough show. G-d will see to it that we (or many of us) repent — just
before it’s entirely too late. “‘As I live,’ says the L-rd G-d, ‘if not with
a strong hand, an outstretched arm, and with poured out fury will I rule
over you.'” (Ezekiel 20:33). We pray that the long-awaited end is near. And thanks to
free will, how it will arrive is entirely within our hands.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and


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