Friday, January 22, 2010

Right.... now about free choice....

So, in my teaching, lecturing and chatting about the BIG issues of G-d, us and life, often the topic of free choice and many related questions come up. Do we really have it? How free is our choice, really? This is always a difficult question in terms of understanding and accepting G-d’s control over all while simultaneously acknowledging that we as human beings have the right to choose our own destinies, or so we think. Further, when we discuss the element of choice, we have to also address the responsibility we must use in choosing.

This is particularly relevant as we consider the Parshiot we are presently reading. Here we see that this issue of G-d’s control and its relationship to the freedom we have to choose intersect with each other in a manner that many find to be problematic. Rabbi David Ellenson calls it Condemned to Be Free (what kind of choice is that?) in his writings when speaking about the following text from Parshat Va’Era.

Notice what we read in Shemot 7: 1 – 5:

א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה רְאֵ֛ה נְתַתִּ֥יךָ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ: ב אַתָּ֣ה תְדַבֵּ֔ר אֵ֖ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲצַוֶּ֑ךָּ וְאַֽהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֨יךָ֙ יְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵֽאַרְצֽוֹ: ג וַֽאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֧י אֶת־אֹֽתֹתַ֛י וְאֶת־מֽוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: ד וְלֹֽא־יִשְׁמַ֤ע אֲלֵכֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְנָֽתַתִּ֥י אֶת־יָדִ֖י בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֨י אֶת־צִבְאֹתַ֜י אֶת־עַמִּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בִּשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים: ה וְיָֽדְע֤וּ מִצְרַ֨יִם֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה בִּנְטֹתִ֥י אֶת־יָדִ֖י עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם וְהֽוֹצֵאתִ֥י אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִתּוֹכָֽם:

And G-d says to Moshe, Look I place you in the role representing G-d to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron as your prophet. You will speak all that I command you and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh and he will send the B’nai Yisrael from his land. And I will harden the heart of Pharaoh that I may multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Mitzrayim. Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will put My hand upon Mitzrayim and I will take out My people, the B’nai Yisrael from the land of Mitzrayim with great oppressive deeds. And the Egyptians will know that I am G-d as I stretch out My hand upon Mitzrayim and I take out the B’nai Yisrael from their midst.

As many readers of this text will undoubtedly ask, where do we see any opportunity or possibility of human’s ability to choose? Moshe is the leader because G-d decides that he will be so and Pharaoh is a hard hearted despot because G-d decides this as well, right? Further, remember the whole purpose of determining what role each player has is to magnify the “signs and wonders” of G-d. Well for many this is a most reasonable and understandable explanation. However, when one considers that G-d’s all encompassing knowledge, which is not bound by time, chronology or special limitations, does NOT include the sequencing of action that we normally think of as human beings, this throws the very foundation of this reasoning to the winds. In other words what we are reading in sequential order actually represents occurrences in a realm, G-d’s realm, in which this order is not operative in the same way that we understand it to be so in our daily reality. I think the true challenge of using the free choice that we are given, and is really the source of our humanity according to Ramban in his commentary on the creation of the human being, is to use it responsibly. That is to say the free choice we are given is not without limits and unfettered, rather it is a tool to be used discriminately and properly. Perhaps, some would say, this is not free choice at all. I call it the informed and disciplined right to choose.

So, now let’s go back to Pharaoh. We note that we have no indication of G-d’s action upon Pharaoh directly until we are already in the throes of the story. We learn elsewhere that the true character of our being is indicated by our actions. Rambam teaches us in Hilchot Teshuvah that when one wants to change his actions and repent, this attempt must be sincere and meaningful. One is NOT, according to Rambam, able to say “I will sin and then I will ask for forgiveness, I will sin again and then I will ask for forgiveness,” and have this pattern continue indefinitely. It is instructive to look at the Catholic Church and watch how they have changed the process of the sacrament of Confession due to this very problem, which is just as much a human option as any other we choose.

So, we must ask, by acknowledging that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what exactly are we attributing as G-d’s involvement here? G-d will NOT facilitate the repentance or feeling remorse on the part of mankind. THIS WE MUST DO OURSELVES. This very point is made in the Gemara in Berachot 33b when we read that G-d gives us so much and provides us with many facilities, but YIRAT SHAMAYIM – our coming to G-d and recognizing that we are accountable in our actions – THIS WE MUST DO FOR OURSELVES. Further, Rambam teaches in Hilchot Teshuvah that a person can act in such a horrible manner that he can ultimately prevent himself from coming back to good actions and good interactions with others. Rav Kook supports this notion as well in his explanation of the plan and path the human being takes in life. Think of what we know about the sociopath – who is hardening their heart? Are they created that way? Of course, we can always blame the Creator for making them this way. But in doing this, what do we relinquish of the foundational meaning of who we are as human beings?

What if we give ourselves the credit for the choices we make? If we talk about the incredible mensch who is in our lives or the amazing person who beet such odds to go on and do wonderful things and credit them (as we should) for their efforts, why does this not work on the other end of the scale of human actions? We all know those “damaged souls” who come from wonderful families and backgrounds and yet go off their derech so to speak. If we are going to acknowledge that we get to choose, then we must also acknowledge our responsibility for the consequences of those choices. I know this is hard to absorb, but (not to be funny) what other choice do we truly have?

So, is G-d happy when people, G-d’s created beings, use their ability to choose for destructive and hurtful reasons? I do not believe that this is so. Here I will join others who think that G-d intentionally holds back at such junctures because what point is there to the gift to choose if we cannot truly choose and if we are constantly protected from the negative effects of these choices. There is presently a series of commercials on American television created by an Insurance company that paints a thought provoking picture for us on exactly this point. In one of these, a young girl is given a new bicycle. She starts to ride it, but then the person who has given her the bicycle says, “No, see that small yellow square you are in. You cannot ride the bicycle outside of the square.” What if we could not REALLY use our gift of choice in life, just as the girl cannot truly use her bicycle? Clearly, this is not the point of free choice.

So, while it is easy to BLAME G-d for our poor choices and CREDIT ourselves for good ones, this is certainly questionable in terms of being an even-handed approach. Now let’s go back to the text from Berachot. We are given many resources and characteristics – that is G-d’s part. Now, we have to CHOOSE how to use our resources and characteristics – that is our part -- to choose and use these abilities with responsibility!

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