Tuesday, August 14, 2012

hakol b'ydei shamayim chutz m'yirah -- free choice

Chazal derive from the pasuk in parshas Eikev, "Mah Hashem... shoel m'imach ki im l'yirah," that everything is in the hands of heaven except yiras shamayim (Kesubos 30). This is the one area where we are free to exercise our bechira chofshis, our free will. By coincidence the daf hayomi for this past Shabbos touched on this topicas well. The gemara (Brachos 10a) relates that there were some evil troublemakers who lived in R' Meir's neighborhood so he davened that they should die. When Bruria, his wife, heard what he was doing, she stopped him. Instead of praying for their death, she said to her husband, he should daven that they do teshuvah. The Maharasha asks how R' Meir could ask Hashem to cause people to do teshuvah -- isn't the choice of whether to do teshuvah, whether to have yiras shamayim, the one area where Hashem does not interfere with people's free will? The simple answer (Maharasha just says "yesh l'yasheiv" but doesn't offer an answer) is that R' Meir meant that Hashem should put these bad guys in a situation where it would be easier for them to make the right choices. In other words, Bruria was making a typical liberal argument: If only these rebellious youths were given a support structure and the proper environment, they would not be such bad guys.  It's an easy answer, but I don't think it fits the language of the gemara very well. See Michtav m'Eliyahu vol 3 for another approach. 

There are a range of views as to the scope of what is included in, "hakol b'ydei shamayim," except yirah. The Rambam in Shmoneh Perakim takes an expansive view of free will and includes under the heading of yirah any decision that has moral or religious implications. Who you should marry, how you make your money, etc. all impact on mitzvos in some way (there is a mitzvah to get married, there is an issur of gezel) and therefore fall under the heading of yirah and are subject to free will. At the other extreme is the position of the Ishbitzer, who writes in a number of places that in truth even yirah itself is dictated by G-d and the gemara simply is telling us what we can tell is controlled by Hashem given our limited human frame of reference. Between these extremes are other positions, such as R' Dessler in Michtav who limits bechira to a single focal point that rises and falls with man's level of religious committment. 

The Rambam (Hil Teshuvah ch 5) asks how we can reconcile G-d's foreknowledge of future events with our free will. If G-d knows what is going to happen, doesn't that mean our choices are already determined? The Rambam answers by quoting the words of the Navi, "Lo machshivosei machshivoseichem," G-d's knowledge is not like human knowledge. The clash between foreknowledge and free will is only a problem within our limited human frame of reference, but not from G-d's transcendent perspective. 

Ra'avad sharply critiques both the Rambam's question and his answer. He charges that the Rambam's answer is no answer at all -- it just avoids the question by saying it is outside the boundaries of our comprehension. If the Rambam did not have an answer, says the Ra'avad, he should not have raised the issue in the first place. The Ra'avad then offers his own answer, that Hashem, "hei'sir zu ha'memshala m'yado u'mesarah b'yad ha'adam atzmo," He circumscribed his own power and turned this area of free will over to man.  Hashem's knowledge is no different than an astrologer who may know the future, but whose knowledge does not have an impact on events themselves. 

R' Ahron Soloveitchik (in Perach Mateh Aharon) teases an interesting lomdus out of the language of the Rambam and Ra'avad. The Ra'avad understands free will to be a function of, "hei'sir zu ha'memshala," of Hashem withdrawing his control. Not so the Rambam, who is unwilling to set any limits on Hashem's authority and is therefore forced into trying to come to grips with the head-on collision of free will vs. Hashem's knowledge. 

It's not relevant to Parshas Eikev, but while on this topic I can't resist posting an amazing vort of the Oheiv Yisrael, R' Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, on Parshas Toldos.  Rikva felt kicking in her womb when she passed houses of avodah zarah worship; she felt kicking in her womb when she passed the beis medrash. She says, "Lamah zeh anochi?" and goes to seek the advice of a Navi.  What troubled Rikva so much? The Oheiv Yisrael writes that Rikva thought she had one child in her womb.  Every person, even a child, has to make certain choices.  One person may choose to follow his heart to a house of avodah zarah; another person may choose to follow his heart into the beis medrash -- but we each must choose.  Bechira chofshis is not just about how we behave -- it's about how we define ourselves, our sense of identity, our sense of self.  Bechira is not about what you do -- it's about who you are.  When Rivka felt what she thought was the same child kicking for both the beis medrash and the beis avodah zarah, she thought this child could not choose a path; she though this baby had no identity, no sense of self.   "Lamah zeh Anochi?" -- "Where is the sense of 'I' that defines who this child is?"  

The gift of bechira means that we are afforded the opportunity to define just who the "I" inside each of us is. Let's hope we choose wisely. 


  1. The simple answer (Maharasha just says "yesh l'yasheiv" but doesn't offer an answer) is that R' Meir meant that Hashem should put these bad guys in a situation where it would be easier for them to make the right choices.

    Really? I thought the pshat was that Rabbi Meir prayed for them along with himself, since immediately before giving the (non-)answer, the Maharsha says that it's okay to say "Hashivenu" because he's also including himself. http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37952&st=&pgnum=271

  2. Anonymous3:07 AM

    we see from R' Meir that Yaakov could pray in his tent as 'Eisav'
    (pray for the death of "troublemakers"), or pray there as 'Yaakov', in line with Bruria's recommendation; likewise Eisav was free to act in the field as 'Yaakov', free to refrain from killing those whom he found personally objectionable, or he could violate others as 'Eisav'...

    the medrash thus changes spots/stripes/colors-- of course Rivka wouldn't have been surprised to feel her passenger squirm (51% animated, 49% indifferent), now* for "houses of avodah zarah", now** for the beis medrash, repeatedly swayed by the nearest hullabaloo during the impressionable embryonic stage; yes a changeful squirm she could compute, but a ribshaking start for both one locale & the other? 'ma zeh?', she asked, 'could the identical creature maintain so much palpable enthusiasm for both services?!'

    *now the 'Eisavs' of the 2 fetuses are in sync, producing a surprisingly
    forceful movement (= to 2 squirms***) toward avodah zarah

    **now in sync, the 2 'Yaakovs', & again the inexplicable bellybending motion!

    ***or ~~synergistically~~ more?
    or yet this, for separation's sake: fetal Eisav was swayed 99% to avodah zarah, fetal Yaakov, 51%, while fetal Yaakov was swayed 99% to the beis medrash, & fetal Eisav, 51% --the addition yields much more force than a doubling of the slight squirms that Rivka might naturally expect of her excitable keep in his earliest formative stage

  3. I don't understand the Ishbitzer's position - if Hashem really decides how much yiras shamayim everyone will have, what place is there for schar and onesh

  4. chaim b.6:27 PM

    The Maharasha uses the sevara of including others agav davening for oneself to explain the tefilah of "hashiveinu" but he ends off with a "yesh l'yasheiv" because it says R' Meir davened directly for the bad guys, not that he included them in a tefilah for his own benefit.

    I didn't include this in the post, but I think you can answer maybe based on the Zohar brought by the Ohr haChaim by the story of Yosef being thrown into the pit (http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2008/12/bitachon-vs-bechira-chofshis-can-we.html) that a ba'al bechira can cause harm to another person even where fate would otherwise not cause such events to happen. Why can't it work on the upside as well? Even if these bad guys would not have otherwise done teshuva, if R' Meir, a ba'al bechira, chooses to daven on their behalf and ask Hashem to cause them to repent, then he can interfere l'tova with the course of events.

  5. chaim b.6:31 PM

    The issue of how to justify punishment if you are a strict determinist is discussed in countless philosophy books, websites, and e-mail lists, so google away. It's even easier to answer from a religious perspective because we don't believe G-d's punishment is vindictive. Perhaps all of history, including the history of your particular neshoma with its failures, follows a predetermined route toward some ultimate tikun. Any "punishment" you suffer for "wrongdoing" is just part of the corrective process of tikun through which the whole universe must pass to get to a better end.

  6. great unknown7:21 PM

    The Michtav MaiEliyahu's concept of the nekudas habechira has to be taken with the understanding that a person has the bechira to move his nekudas habechira. Which of course leads to an infinite regression. Which seems right.

    The Ramchal in Da'as Tevunos says that while bechira is granted, in some cases it is overruled
    as necessary for the advancement of the Ultimate Plan. E.g., Yehuda decided to avoid Tamar but Hashem sent an angel after him to drag him back... I discussed this with R'Aharon Soloveitchik many years ago, and he vehemently rejected that that was pshat in the Ramchal. He could not accept any suppression of free will. However, the Michtav MaiEliyahu learns the Ramchal the same way and I do.

  7. >>>bechira is granted, in some cases it is overruled as necessary for the advancement of the Ultimate Plan.

    R' Tzadok writes that this is the meaning of "vayachshiveha lo tzedaka" in the bris bein habesarim. Hashem promised that there would be a yetzias mitzrayim, no ifs ands or buts. Avraham understood that this meant no amount of bechira could change the destiny of klal yisrael and that's why he thought his was a special tzedaka.
    You also have the meshech chochma in the hakdamah to sefer shmos who says that moshe rabeinu had no bechira whether to accept or not accept the torah -- it had to happen through him, period.

    1. great unknown11:38 PM

      I think the Meshech Chochma there goes one step further: in order to ensure that Moshe Rabbeinu could not turn to the "dark side," Hashem took away his bechira entirely, so that he had the same level of bechira as a Malach. Otherwise, what would have happened after Hashem said וגם בך יאמינו לעולם if Moshe had decided to add a new mitzva like: support me and my descendants in perpetuity. Actually, that's pretty much what Korach accused him of.

      [Some subtle bechira was apparently still there, but nothing we would recognize as bechira. After all Moshe Rabbeinu did ultimately "sin" despite this lack of bechira, and there are documented instances of Malochim "sinning". But at such subtle, rarefied levels that it is difficult to understand the sin and punishment clearly.]

  8. Daas Yochid3:38 AM

    "if Hashem really decides how much yiras shamayim everyone will have, what place is there for schar and onesh"

    I never really understood this question.
    Take for example a pet dog. We want it to behave in a certain way, so we subject it to reward and punishment. And they work. But this does not imply that the animal has bechira, surely.

    1. Punishing a dog is not really punishment; it is training. However, punishment in the World to Come is not training - our term in this life is already over then.

  9. Why are you so sure an animal has no bechira? I don't see why this is muchrach.

    Punishment in the next world is simply the experience of the fruits of a life filled with wrongs in olam hazeh. It's a natural consequence of the bad deeds, as opposed to the punishment of an animal which is an arbitrary response imposed upon the animal.

  10. Anonymous3:48 AM

    r chaim kanievsky bshem chozon ish says your answer. see kuntros yesh lyashev