Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – The Fallacy of Free Will

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Operation Inspiration

 

I know, that’s a really depressing title. However, by the time I’m done, you’re going to be thanking me for this. I don’t mean literally, because people hardly EVER comment or respond to written material though writers like me are dying for feedback, but let’s move on.

We all know that Hashem gave us free will to decide whether to listen to His Torah and Mitzvos, and what we will eat for lunch, and what time we will get to shul or school or work, right? Well, sort of.

In most cases the idea of Bechira Chofshis (Free Will) versus Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence) is believed to be something that works somehow, but not in a way we can understand. And it makes sense that we can’t completely have free will, because if one could defy Hashem’s will simply by choosing to do so, then he is limiting Hashem’s power. So obviously it’s not possible. Now let’s prove it.

When Bilaam went to curse the Jews, he tried twice and Hashem made it clear that He didn’t want them cursed. The Torah tells us that the third time, Bilaam did not go like he did the first two. On the surface, one might think that he went with a rosier outlook, intending to bless Klal Yisrael. But Rashi tells us this isn’t true. Instead, Bilaam said to himself, “I don’t care what Hashem wants. I’m going to curse them. I’m going to recall their sins and the klala will come automatically!” Yes, this rasha had a plan to use his free will to outwit the Almighty. No surprise there, but it didn’t work. Instead, he ended up saying Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, and praising us for being considerate of each other.

But what happened to free will?

I am by no means an expert but based on my limited knowledge and life experience, I’ve come to the understanding that free will is not a catalyst to the outcome. What will happen and what you WANT to happen, can be two entirely different things. If you want to make money, you can work really hard. Or, you can cheat in business. And either way, you will strike it rich… or not.

Remember what I said about what you want for lunch? Even that doesn’t work. We all know the phrase, “Mezonosav shel Adam ketzuvim lo m’Rosh Hashana ad Yom HaKippurim,” what a person will eat is determined between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. That means that on Rosh Hashana, if Hashem decided you will eat a tuna sandwich for lunch next Thursday, that’s what you will have even if you make plans to go to a swanky restaurant. Something will happen and it won’t work out. You will have your choice, but you won’t get to choose the actual result of that choice.

The Gemara does give an exception to this rule: it doesn’t apply to what you choose to spend for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, or for tuition for your kids. With those, if you spend less you will get less, and if you spend more, you will get more. So, effectively, I can’t choose to have a steak at my business lunch, but I CAN choose to have a steak on Friday night at the Seudah? How does that make sense?

The Chovos HaLevavos teaches that when it comes to physical endeavors, our efforts are meaningless. Hashem will make us successful if we’re supposed to be regardless of how much we try or don’t try. In spiritual matters, however, it’s a different ballgame. If we want to achieve, and we work towards that, then we will see success. If we try to sin, sadly, we will be judged for our poor choices and though we may not manage to do what we set out to, we will have shown what we’re made of and be treated accordingly.

The simple understanding goes like this: Hashem will make everything happen as it’s supposed to. The question is, will you have been trying to make that outcome, in which case you win, or were you trying to do something else, in which case you lose?

And here’s where the part you’ll like comes in. When it comes to physical matters, don’t sweat it. Do some hishtadlus, but not too much. It’s going to be what Hashem ordained. I know, some of you are saying, “But you can’t sit back and do nothing and expect to get paid,” but look around! Isn’t America proving that isn’t the case right now?

Instead, focus on ruchnius and know that your efforts will pay off. It’s a win-win. You don’t need to be jealous of anyone because if you’re supposed to have what they do, you will. Of course, Chazal tell us, Kinas Sofrim Tarbeh Chochma, jealousy of people who study Torah brings more wisdom because that’s the only time your hishtadlus accomplishes something and the (proper) jealousy is worth it.

Take it from me and choose where you put your efforts so they can bear fruit. It makes life not only more bearable, but a lot more pleasant and rewarding. Understanding free will is key to taking advantage of it, and it’s quite liberating. You’re welcome.

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