It is worthwhile to elaborate a bit on this important concept of free will, which the Rambam calls “an important principle and a pillar of all Torah and mitzvos.”
He states: “Do not let the thought cross your mind, that which the foolish ones among the nations and even ignorant Jews claim, that Hashem predetermined and decreed upon every person what he will be — a righteous person or a wicked one. It is not so — for every single person can be either a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu, or a wicked man like Yeravam. There is no one pulling him in either direction. It is each person’s own choice to pick the way of life he will follow.”
-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.14
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah
So much for Calvinism. We can’t claim that God preselected us to be good or to be evil. We get to choose who we are and we get to make different choices over time. That’s miserable and encouraging all at once. It’s miserable because we human beings all by ourselves are prone to willfulness, weakness, and error. But it’s also hopeful in that we can strive to overcome our faults and to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.
One of the recurring themes in the various incarnations of “Star Trek” is that mankind continually works to improve itself, with the presupposition that humans have the moral framework and ability to do so independently. However, both Judaism and Christianity maintain that we are unable to elevate ourselves spiritually to any degree at all without relying on God. This does not negate free will, since we must choose to either obey or disobey God in the different and varied areas of our lives.
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
–1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)
Maybe that’s the answer to this sometimes frustrating statement of Paul’s. It may seem like temptation is irresistible, but the circumstances tempting us are the same for a lot of people, even if we’re only aware of our own individual experience. We can either rely on ourselves and fail or rely on God and have the hope of success, and God is faithful.
It’s when we assume that we’re helpless victims, either of God’s “Divine Plan” to choose only some for salvation and to let the rest burn, or of our own “sin nature” or “evil inclination” that the following happens:
So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
–1 Corinthians 5:4-5
Not that God necessarily gives up on us, but He certainly can give us enough rope to hang ourselves with, if we so choose. Then, when swinging in the breeze, if we’re still alive, we can call out to Him.
But even resisting temptation is no guarantee of an easy or good life.
One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.
Joseph resisted the repeated temptation to have an illicit affair with his master’s wife. He was blameless and still ended up in prison. How much more so do we, who are not blameless, risk “prison” of one form or another, even after we cry out to God and begin to learn to resist our own temptations and to strive to be better servants of Hashem.
The worst prison is when G-d locks you up. He doesn’t need guards or cells or stone walls. He simply decides that, at this point in life, although you have talent, you will not find a way to express it. Although you have wisdom, there is nobody who will listen. Although you have a soul, there is nowhere for it to shine.
And you scream, “Is this why you sent a soul into this world? For such futility?”
That is when He gets the tastiest essence of your juice squeezed out from you.
(Likutei Sichot vol. 23, pp. 163–165; Shlach 5732:1; 5th night of Chanukah 5720:4.)
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Invisible Prison”
If God puts us in “prison,” isn’t it what we deserve? Why should we complain (although we invariably do)? In sin, we are slaves but slaves who have deliberately put ourselves in the hand of our master. In choosing to not sin, we are deciding to be slaves of a different Master, one who loves our soul, one who desires the best for us. As Rabbi Freeman suggests, the prison God incarcerates us in is designed not to confine and demoralize us, but to drive us to be the very best we can be.
And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”
–II Samuel 24:14
This verse is the opening line of the Tachanun prayer. Dovid HaMelach had sinned by taking a census of the Jews in a manner contrary to that prescribed by the Torah. Hashem, through the agency of the prophet Gad, gave Dovid HaMelech a choice of three calamities, one of which he and his people would have to suffer in atonement for his sin: seven years of hunger, three months of defeat in battle, or a deadly three-day plague. Dovid chose the last, because that one would be inflicted directly by God, Whose mercy is ever present even when His wrath is aroused. His choice proved to be the correct one, for God mercifully halted the plague after a duration of only half a day.
-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” pp.15-16
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah
Joseph’s incarceration is recorded in this week’s Torah Portion but not its resolution. Joseph was made a slave and then a prisoner in order to accomplish God’s plan, not just for Joseph or even just for Egypt, but for the entire world. No doubt you already know how the story of Joseph continues, how he was released from prison to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s, and as a result, how Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh. From prisoner to prince in one stroke.
Very few of us will have such an experience, yet it would be enough if God were to judge us and not human beings. God is incapable of treating us with malice and His rulings are truly impartial and fair, though they can be harsh.
When you look at that imperfect and sinful wreck in the mirror each morning, are you not much harder on yourself than God would be? Doesn’t God look at us with pity and compassion when most people, even those closest to us, react out of hurt and anger?
A basic Torah principle is that when correcting someone, we need to do so with a sense of love and compassion. When you speak in a blaming manner, the message you give is not a loving one.
If there is a specific person you tend to speak to in a blaming manner, be resolved to speak to more pleasantly.
(For a series of probing questions on this topic, see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” pp.135-7)
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #189: “Replace Blame with Compassion”
Would that other people or even we ourselves were as merciful and compassionate as God when we fail and seek to make amends.
But coming back to the matter of free will, our actions and the consequences rest on our shoulders. No one else is to blame, though we can hope and pray for mercy. In the end, people are not always merciful, but even when we do not deserve it, God is compassionate.
The Tzemach Tzedek writes: The love expressed in “Beside You I wish for nothing,” (Psalm 73:25) means that one should desire nothing other than G-d, not even “Heaven” or “earth” i.e. Higher Gan Eden and Lower Gan Eden, for these were created with a mere yud…. The love is to be directed to Him alone, to His very Being and Essence. This was actually expressed by my master and teacher (the Alter Rebbe) when he was in a state of d’veikut and he exclaimed as follows:
I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden, I don’t want Your olam haba… I want nothing but You alone.
from “Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Kislev 18, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Whatever prison you find yourself in, seek God alone. Everything else will take care of itself.