ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה
(דברים י”א, כ”ו)
One of the basic tenets of Jewish faith is free will. God, through the Torah, has shown us the right way to live our lives, but the choice on whether to follow this way or not is in the hands of each individual. The opening word of our parasha is re’eh – watch, or behold – a word which many commentators explain as understanding. We understand that God is giving us both a blessing and a curse, and that we need to choose between the two.
However, this week’s parasha also has several references to the temple in Jerusalem (implicitly referred to as the “place that God will choose”) as the only place where sacrifices can be brought to. The choice of the place where to worship God is not up to man, and man is commanded to come to a specific place and is prohibited from doing God’s work elsewhere. In the story in Bereshit about Avraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, God says to him that He will show him which mountain to go to for this purpose. Answering Yitzchak’s question about why there is no animal going with them, Avraham replies that God is supposed to show them which animal to sacrifice. We see here that it is God that tells us how and when to worship Him, and that we have no free will in this matter.
But if we read the story of the akedah more closely we see that Avraham is the one that actually “sees” the mountain, their destination. Avraham is also the one that “sees” the animal to sacrifice, after the angel of God tells him not to sacrifice Yitzchak. The idea here is that a person who reaches a high level of faith (and fear) of God, is a person who is able to “see” what God has chosen for him.
Rambam approaches the age-old theological question of free will against the will of God and asks a question on the verse from Tehillim 115: “whatever pleases [God] He has done”. How can man have free will if God does whatever pleases him? Rambam answers that God gave us the right to make mistakes and choose the wrong way, in order to preserve free will. The value of man’s free will is higher in God’s eyes, so to speak, than the value of man following God’s ways. This is true in a time when we are not close to God. But when we succeed in approaching God and understanding his ways, like Avraham did, we are able to make our choices freely and our choices match the will of God.
The famous story in the Talmud about the discussion among the sages that ended in a voice from heaven saying what is right and R. Yehoshua exclaiming: “it is not in heaven” – meaning man is free to interpret the law – is an illustration of this free will. At the end of this story, we are told God says “my sons have beaten me” and accepts the interpretation of the majority of the sages against the voice from heaven. In an interesting reversal of the order of things, the choice of God has become the choice of man!
So how do we reconcile the edict that we can worship God only in the temple in Jerusalem with our free will? How do we worship God the way we want and where we want, and make our choice also the choice of God? The answer is in the verse from Shemot 20, 20: “in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come unto you and bless you”. The Talmud in Berachot says that even if one person sits down and learns Torah, God’s presence is with him. If we follow God’s edict and come to the place he mentioned His name, then He will come to us and bless us, He will come to the place we choose. This is the reconciliation between the two choices: God’s choice and our choice.
This idea for this week’s thought is from R. David Dov Levanon.