God's Greatest Gift: The Freedom to Choose
Jewish law is an ongoing training regime in willpower. Can you eat this and not that? Can you exercise spiritually three times a day? Can you rest one day in seven? Can you defer the gratification of instinct? To be a Jew means not going with the flow, not doing what others do just because they are doing it. It gives us 613 exercises in the power of will to shape our choices. That is how we, with God, become co-authors of our lives.
“I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life – so that you and your children may live.” (Devarim 30:19)
Moses Maimonides teaches the following:
“Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 5:1)
We have it in us, says Rambam, to be as righteous as Moshe or as evil as King Yerovam. We can be great. We can be small. We can choose and we should choose life. Nothing sounds easier yet nothing has proved more difficult over time. Instead, people choose substitutes for life. They pursue wealth, possessions, status, power, fame, and to these gods they make the supreme sacrifice, realizing too late that true wealth is not what you own but what you are thankful for, that the highest status is not to care about status, and that influence is more powerful than power.
No religion, no civilization, has insisted so strenuously and consistently that we can choose. That is why, though few faiths are more demanding, most Jews at most times have stayed faithful to Judaism, living Jewish lives, building Jewish homes, and continuing the Jewish story. That is why, with a faith as unshakeable as it has proved true, the answer to the question “Why Judaism?” is: because there is no more challenging way of choosing life.
The ability to choose is the ultimate gift to humanity from the Creator. If there was no freewill – What room would there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could God punish the wicked or reward the righteous?
This concept is explored in the Exodus story. God tells Moshe:
“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt.” (Shemot 7:3)
Throughout the ages, our Rabbis have pondered over the following question: If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how could he have been criticised for not letting the Israelites go? He had no choice in the matter, because it was God’s doing, not his. That he and his people should be punished seems to flout the fundamental principle of justice, that we are guilty only for what we have freely chosen to do. So why was he punished?
16th-century Italian rabbi and physician, Rabbi Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno explains that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart precisely to restore his free will. After the series of plagues that had devastated the land, Pharaoh was under overwhelming pressure to let the Israelites go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free choice, because who could resist the power of direct miracles from God?! God therefore strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so that even after the first five plagues he was genuinely free to say Yes or No. (Sforno Shemot 7:3)
The early chapters of Genesis focus on two stories: the first is Adam and Eve; the second, Cain and Abel. Both are about a specific kind of failure. First Adam and Eve. As we know, they sin. Embarrassed and ashamed, they hide, only to discover that one cannot hide from God: Both insist that it was not their fault. Adam blames the woman. The woman blames the serpent. The result is paradise lost: they are both punished and exiled from the garden of Eden. Why? Because Adam and Eve deny personal responsibility. They say, in effect, “It wasn’t me.”
The second story is tragic. The first instance of sibling rivalry in the Torah leads to the first murder, during which Cain does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, “It was not me,” or “It was not my fault.” Instead, he denies moral responsibility. In effect, he asks why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself. Why should we not do what we want if we have the power to do it?
In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues that justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger party. Might makes right. If life is a Darwinian struggle to survive, why should we restrain ourselves for the sake of others if we are more powerful than they are? If there is no morality in nature, then I am responsible only to myself. That is the voice of Cain throughout the ages.
The voice of God, our Good Inclination, is within each of us. God is what Abraham Lincoln called, “The better angels of our nature.” He’s what Matthew Arnold called, “The force not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.” He is the other within the self that says, “I can’t act for self-interest alone. I have to acknowledge something larger than me.” Something that indeed embraces every human being, something of which I am a part, not the whole.
But, there is also within us what the Sages called the Evil Inclination. Christians have a slightly different idea which they call Original Sin, and it is that voice which tells us, “No, I’m all there is and my interest, my passions and my view of the world is all that matters.” And that is when you get hubris. That is when you get nemesis. That is when you get human beings destroying other human beings and ultimately destroying themselves.
God gave us freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. God teaches us what we ought to do but He does not do it for us. With rare exceptions, God does not intervene in history. He acts through us, not to us. His is the voice that tells us, as He told Cain, that we can resist the evil within us as well as the evil that surrounds us.