Thoughts to Ponder Number 29
27 Tevet, 5760; January 5, 2000

Freedom of Will and Determinism, a Daring Midrash

"We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice." This observation made by Isaac Bashevis Singer introduces one of the greatest problems in Jewish and general philosophy, freedom of will versus determinism. Many have attempted to solve the problem, but not one philosopher has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory response.

In Midrash Tanchuma, we read one of the most daring statements ever made in religious literature. It is a most telling example of the boldness of our sages, who were not afraid to deal with a problem "head on."

On the words, "And Joseph was brought down to Egypt," (Bereshith 39:1) the midrash comments, "This is what is referred to when it says in Tehilim, (66:5) 'Come and see the works of God. He is terrible in His dealing "allila" with men.'" On the surface, this verse seems to express a general Jewish belief, which teaches man about the greatness of God. However, it is clear that the midrash realizes that the expression, "allila," is most unconventional, for it continues with the following words, "Says Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, 'Even those events which You bring upon us, You bring with "allila." Before God created the world, He created the Angel of Death on the first day.' From where do we know this? Said Rabbi Barchiah, 'Because it is written, (when the creation had just started) "there was darkness upon the face of the deep." This is a reference to the Angel of Death who darkens the face of all creatures. Man was created on the sixth day and an allila was placed before him so that he (man) would bring death upon the world as it is written, "And on the day that you will eat from it (i.e. the Tree of Knowledge) you will surely die." (Bereshit 2:17) This means that from the outset it was determined that Adam and Eve would be forced to eat from the tree, because they had to be mortal since God had already created the necessity for death.'" It now becomes clear what the word "allila," according to the midrash means: false accusation, pretext or insidiousness. Yet, according to the plain text of the Torah, death came on man because man chose to eat from the tree.

In case we may have any doubt about the correctness of this interpretation, let us read the continuation of this midrash in which the following analogy is brought, "To what can we compare this case? To a man who wished to divorce his wife. Before he went home, he wrote a get (bill of divorce) and entered the house with the get in his pocket. He then sought an allila to give it to her. He told her, 'Pour me a cup that I may drink.' She poured it for him. When he took the cup from her, he said, 'Here is your get.' She said to him, 'What did I do wrong?' He said, 'Go out of my house because you poured for me a lukewarm cup.' Said she to him, 'Did you already know that I would pour for you a lukewarm cup, so that you wrote a get and brought it in your hand?' So Adam said to the Holy One blessed be He, 'Lord of the universe, before You created the world the Torah was with You for 2,000 years (i.e. eternally). You wrote in the Torah about "a man who dies in a tent" (Bamidbar 19:14), and now you come to accuse me that I brought death to the world!!"

The midrash continues in a similar vein, telling of the case of Moshe and the waters of "meriba," (Bamidbar 20) where it proves from the text that this sin was already determined long before Moshe made this mistake so that he should die on account of it - still, Moshe is blamed for having brought about his own death! The third example brought by the midrash relates to Joseph and the exile in Egypt. In Bereshith, (15:13) we read that Avraham is told by God, 'Know for sure that your descendants will be aliens in a land which is not theirs and will be slaves and oppressed for four hundred years.' Therefore God brought the entire affair of Jacob and his sons, the jealousy and the hatred between the brothers and Joseph, the sale of Joseph, his elevation to his high office in Egypt and, ultimately, the coming of Yacov and his sons to Egypt, in order to fulfill what He had said to Avraham." In other words: Why should the brothers be blamed for having caused all this to happen when, in fact, the whole outcome was already decided in advance?! Therefore: It is an "allila" upon man!

Those who study these narratives very carefully will realize, however, that the midrash was not forced to give this interpretation. It could have allowed for an explanation which would be much more open to freedom of will. Therefore we must conclude that it deliberately took this route to emphasize the paradox of freedom of will versus determinism and to teach us an important lesson. When Jews declare, "Hakol min hashamaim chutz me-yirath shamaim, everything is from heaven (determinism) except the fear of Heaven (freedom of will)," they pronounce a most profound condition of Jewish belief. It is not that there are times when determinism operates and other times when freedom of will is given to man. Rather, they function simultaneously. On one level, man seems to have the opportunity to chose, however, on a different level, all is pre-determined. This is one of the great paradoxes of human existence. It was Friedrich Durenmatt who once said that "he who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality." ("21 Points," The Physicists, 1962)

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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