Human Freewill and the Course of History

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Eight

The tension between freewill and Divine foreknowledge has a long history in Jewish thought. In this sha’ar, R. Arama takes a position on a detail of the issue, Hashem’s plan for history does not force people into particular actions (history accommodates many versions, leaving people with choice about almost all their actions).

He grounds his claims in Bereshit Rabbah 85, where R.  Shemuel bar Nahman contrasts people’s thoughts and attempts to control the future—Ya’akov’s others sons plan to sell Yosef, Ya’akov and Yosef get caught up in their troubles, Yehuda’s struggles with his sons’ lives—with Hashem’s “thoughts,” which guide us towards Messianic times.

The Limits of Human Horizons

People have many choices, but everyone agrees they cannot do more than what they can do [my inability to jump ten feet in the air isn’t seen as a restriction of my freewill, it’s simply outside the realm of my human capabilities]. History works the same way, R. Arama says; people can do much, limited only by Hashem’s overall plan for history. To subvert the plan completely is not within our human capabilities.

In the physical realm, there’s what we must do to live [breathe, for example], there’s what’s very likely we will do [drive a car], unlikely [train ourselves to bench press some large amount of weight] and impossible [his example is leaving the earth and ascending to the heavens, which has now become only extraordinary, but the idea is still true]. With history, too, we affect it all the time in small and large ways, some necessary, some unusual or extraordinary, yet we cannot foil Hashem’s overall intentions. Tehillim 33;9-11 twice speaks of Hashem’s intent on a course of the world, to R. Arama a reminder of where we cannot go. [Rabbenu Yonah had a similar idea, I think, in his commentary to Mishle 23;1, where he says kings have less freewill than most people, because their actions have more historical impact.]

The Relationship of the Whole to the Parts

He runs into a problem as he considers the idea. The course of history would seem to be the sum of all the actions of all people everywhere. If the end is determined, doesn’t that mean each of the parts has been determined as well? [To illustrate his question: if a complicated chemical reaction ends in result, each step is necessary to achieving the result. Were history the same, knowing there is an expected result to history should mean each step is necessary, and then would have to be predetermined.]

R. Arama knows of those who deny freewill for that very reason; he disagrees, because there are many ways to skin a cat [not his phrase]. Hashem can enrich a person either through the person’s efforts (making his/her business remarkably successful), arranging for gifts [a lottery] to come his/her way, etc. The brothers, for the example at hand in theparshahe is discussing, were by far not the only way to get Ya’akov to Egypt.

Avraham’s financial success demonstrates the point as well.  Did Par’oh and Avimelekh have to take Sara in order for Avraham to become wealthy? Did the four and five kings have to fight a war to make a point of Avraham’s military prowess?

Much as Adam Smith spoke about an invisible hand to the economy [my example], where people’s pursuit of their individual goals agglomerates into a market with all the produces people seek, Hashem builds the future off of actions people engage in for their own reasons, working to the overall direction Hashem intended.

The multiple paths to the same overall end (and, he points out, the bigger the end the more ways to get there—there are many more ways to have a city prosper than to have one individual prosper) mean human beings, by and large, can do what they want, Hashem able to always shift this or that to keep the world on its overall course.

[He is saying Hashem’s goals for history are not as specific as the result of the chemical reaction I referred to above. Were history to have required the brothers to sell Yosef, Yosef to become viceroy, etc., none of those acts would have been freely chosen. He is saying the divine plan involved getting Ya’akov to Egypt; said that way, there were many paths. Hashem may have goosed it a bit by sending Yosef a dream that sparked tensions, etc., but the freewill was still there.]

Preserving Reward and Punishment

With choice comes responsibility. Yosef may have told his brothers Hashem turned their choices to the good, but they still made poor choices, for which they would bear consequences. Hashem decided Avraham’s descendants needed to spend time as strangers in servitude, yet Par’oh chose to enslave and oppress them.

Tanhuma to Va-Yeshev makes the point, Hashem used the brothers’ jealousy over the garment Ya’akov made for Yosef to bring the predetermined exile. The brothers’ actions were still their choice, perhaps only went as far as they did because it was part of the Divine plan [presumably, then, they were only on the hook for the results they could or should have expected, but that’s another topic.]

History Rhymes

R. Arama calls it tuv Hashem ve-rov hasadav, the goodness of Gd and the fullness of His kindness, to bring the needed outcomes while leaving freewill largely intact, this story showing us a more general truth. To R. Arama, it’s another version of ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, the events in Bereshit are a blueprint of Jewish history, their stories popping up in our lives [in slightly different forms, perhaps] over and over.

He adds a sentence his listeners understood better than we do. He says, “our eyes have seen the truth of this sentence and not a stranger’s…with all we have undergone until now.” I assume he means the Expulsion from Spain of 1492, but whatever he means, he thinks his generation underwent a repeat episode of an old drama, and the stories were put in the Torah for us to recognize these dramas as they recur, to take lessons for how to handle them.

He notes Ramban thought the stories of Bereshit only qualified for inclusion in the Torah because they are a paradigm for all of history. R. Arama largely agrees; while the Yosef stories, for our current example, are valuable just for their clear assertion of Hashem’s involvement in world events, the stories include too many details for that overall lesson to be their sole purpose.

Next time, we’ll take up the story itself as a paradigm of world history, as R. Arama sees it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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