Nitzavim/Vayelech: Free Will

See – I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today. To love Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances; then you will live and you will multiply, and Hashem, your G-d, willbless you in the Land to which you come to possess it…

I call heaven and earth as witnesses! Before you I have placed life and death, the blessing and the curse. You must choose life, so that you and your descendants will live. (Deut. 30:15,16).

 This warning was issued when the Jewish People were about to enter their land, to live there isolated from the nations’ detestable practices. Unfortunately, even in Eretz Yisrael, we sinned greatly and exile was decreed, such that instead of being a “nation that dwells alone” (Num. 23:9), we ended up among the nations, and most of the Jewish People became like them. As a result, large parts of our people, in effect, lost the ability to choose. The free choice that was their lot in Eretz Yisrael, their land and birthplace, became a farce among the nations where they were conquered by foreign culture; and countless Jews became spiritual captives.How can we expect Israel to repent as a people when they do not even have any questions? Why should G-d continue punishing His people for so long when not only is the punishment not beneficial, but, as we saw following the dreadful Holocaust, tens of thousands of believing Jews even became heretics? How can G-d draw near to Him a people that has lost its understanding to choose between good and evil, between life and death? Regarding the verse, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good, that are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23), Redak comments, “You have so accustomed yourselves to evil that it cannot leave you, as though it were a second nature to you.”In this age of  great scientific and technological advancement, when materialistic, cosmopolitan “realism” makes assimilation seem acceptable, it is clear that the Jewish captive to foreign culture will not improve his ways. Quite the contrary, he marches along proudly, far from the camp, far from the idea of repenting, almost cut off from every link to his origins. He has lost, so to speak, the power of free choice. He who was earmarked to be like the stars of the heavens, wallows in the mire.

The Torah’s very defining good and evil in real, absolute terms constitutes a declaration of war against the culture of the nations and the Hellenists [westernized, secular Jews] who adopted it. That culture preaches that no one absolute good or evil can be determined, since all ideas and concepts, including those defining good and evil, are the product of human thought. Both those who deny the existence of a Supreme, Omniscient, Omnipotent G-d Who is the source of wisdom and truth, and those who admit the existence of a Supreme Being yet deny Torah from Sinai, i.e., that G-d set forth a blueprint in the Torah, hold that we cannot attach special status to one “good” over another. Tolerance and pluralism are the ultimate principles of that alien culture. Since followers of that culture cannot determine with certainty what evil is, they cannot eradicate it from the world. Clearly, tolerance and psychological flexibility regarding (almost) all views and lifestyles are their philosophical darling. For them, almost absolute liberty and freedom transcend all else. Included in this is a person’s freedom and right to do whatever he pleases with his life so long as it does not “harm his fellow man”. Clearly, this approach is a disgusting philosophical abomination to G-d and Israel. G-d, the Creator, fashioned a world that rests on truth, an exact, defined truth, determined by Him. The world was created to put G-d’s clear, precise ideas and attributes into practice, and whoever seeks to differ with them imperils his soul. It is not man who determines his path on this earth. He is not free to choose whatever lifestyle he pleases without facing the consequences – bitter punishment from His father in Heaven.

The Torah treats with contempt the idea of man having freedom over his body and his life. Our sages comment on the verse, “The tablets were the tablets of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven [charut] on the tablets.” (Ex. 32:16): “Read not charut, ‘graven’, but cherut, ‘freedom’. The only free man is the one who studies Torah” (Avot 6:2).A person is not free, he is not at liberty to act however he pleases. He is bound by the yoke of Heaven, the fetters of our holy Torah. Only by agreeing to serve G-d and accept His yoke does he become free. This alone liberates him from the empty bestiality which enslaves him to his own needs, to his own selfish ego, to abominable lust.G-d does not recognize man’s right to do as he pleases as long as he does not harm his fellow man. G-d established that man’s life does not belong to him. Man was commanded to live and given a path to follow. Not only is he forbidden to harm his fellow man. But he is forbidden to harm himself. As long as a person opposes his Maker, he harms himself. He takes his own soul, committing spiritual suicide, and he is not free to act this way. Life itself is not man’s personal property. G-d blew into man the breath of life only so he would lead a well-defined life of goodness. As our sages said (Avot 4:29), “Perforce you were born and perforce you live.” If a person says, “Since I was created against my will, if I do not wish to live I have a right to commit suicide,” G-d declares that man is not free either to live as he wishes or to die however he likes. Regarding one who commits suicide, our sages said (Semachot – Avel Rabbati 2:1):We do not eulogize him, but we stand in line for him and say the blessing for mourners, to show respect for the living. As a rule, whatever shows respect for the living we do, but nothing beyond that.Rambam (Hilchot Avel 1:11) and Tur (Yoreh Deah 345) ruled the same way. Thus we learn that even a man’s life is not in his own hands, let alone his lifestyle.

A person is granted free will, and he has the right and duty to choose goodness and life and to loath evil, defilement and death. If, of his own free will, he chooses evil and defiles himself, G-d will not help him to avoid evil by closing the door to evil. Rather, G-d opens the way for him to do what he wants.It says in Yoma 39a:If a person defiles himself a little bit, Heaven will defile him a lot. If he does so on earth, he will be defiled from Heaven. If he does so in this world, he will be defiled in the World-to-Come. The Rabbis learned, “Make yourselves holy and remain sanctified” (Lev. 11:44): If a person sanctifies himself a little bit, Heaven will sanctify him a lot. If he does so on earth…That is what is meant by “Heaven gives him an opening”. The more he defiles himself and sins, the more his defilement and sin become habit, and ultimately second nature. All this applies to the Jew, and all the more so to the non-Jew. Moreover, if a non-Jew profanes G-d’s name by reviling and humiliating a Jew, and he refuses to desist, then when the time of redemption and revenge arrives, G-d will not only open the way for him to continue, but will even entice him to do so, for his fate has already been sealed.Certainly, if Gog announces that he is accepting the yoke of Heaven and submitting to G-d, and he subjugates himself to G-d and Israel, thereby bringing the world the great and final Kiddush Hashem, G-d will certainly let him repent in this way. Yet, as long as he does not do this, as long as he and the world continue in arrogant chilul Hashem, G-d will set the time for His revenge and, then, will entice him into receiving his punishment. Rambam explains in Hilchot Teshuva 6:3: […] Why then did G-d address him [Pharaoh] through Moses, saying “Send out Israel and repent,” when He had already made it clear that He knew Pharaoh would not send them out, as it says, “I realize that you and your subjects still do not fear G-d” (Ex. 9:30); and, “The only reason I let you survive was to show you My strength” (Ex. 9:16)? It was to inform mankind that when G-d prevents the sinner from repenting, the sinner cannot repent, but must die for the wicked deeds he performed previously of his own free will. It was so with Sichon. In accordance with his sins, he was denied repentance: “The L-rd your G-d hardened his spirit and made his heart firm (Deut. 2:30). The same applies to the Canaanites. In accordance with their abominations, G-d denied them repentance until they waged war against Israel: “It was the L-rd’s doing to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might destroy them utterly” (Joshua 11:20).Here we learn a major principle of free choice regarding a wicked non-Jew who profanes G-d’s name. An evildoer can submit to G-d in one of two ways. First, he can repent and crown G-d King, accept G-d’s sovereignty and subjugate himself to G-d and mitzvot. Clearly, such repentance is appropriate and desirable, and G-d will not prevent his submitting in this way.

The second way is for him to submit, not out of repentance and acceptance of G-d’s yoke, but only out of fear and weakness. Certainly, this does not constitute sufficient repentance from his wickedness and Chilul Hashem, for until he rises and proclaims openly that Hashem is G-d and King, bending his knee before Him, G-d’s name is not sanctified in the world. Therefore, if his whole submission is out of weakness and fear, he will still deserve punishment and revenge. G-d will, therefore, harden his heart so that he does not submit out of fear. Thus, G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because Pharaoh never accepted the yoke of G-d’s kingdom. By the same token, G-d did not let him escape his sin and punishment through mere fear, but hardened his heart, so that G-d’s name would be sanctified. It will be similar with Gog, who will stand firm in his chilul Hashem, and the time of Kiddush Hashem will arrive. It thus says, “I will bring you against My land, O Gog, before their eyes” (Ezek. 38:16). [The ensuing punishment and revenge we find described in this week’s Haftarah]: “I alone have trodden a wine press, not a man from the nations was with Me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in  My wrath, and their lifeblood spurted out on My garments, so I soiled all my garments. For a day of vengeance is in My heart, and the year of My redemption has come…” (Isaiah 63:3,4)

This is the greatest, most terrifying Kiddush Hashem there can be, and it is this which will make all the nations accept G-d’s sovereignty.

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