Torah Or, Parshas Vayeira;
Likkutei Sichos
, Vol. V, pp. 65ff;
Vol. III, pp. 976-977;
Chiddushim U’Biurim, Vol. III, p. 108;
Igros Kodesh, Vol. III, pp. 40, 49

Rabbi Yitzchak of Neschiz spent his youth in the household of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Needless to say, he carefully observed the tzaddik, attentively studying the nuances of his conduct.

When he grew older, he explained: “I have been able to internalize everything I learned from my teacher except the observance of two mitzvos: Kiddush and the lulav and esrog. The way he accepted G‑d’s mastery over all existence (Kiddush) and the way he took the world in his hands and manipulated it at will (lulav and esrog) is still beyond me.”

A Philosopher’s Dilemma

For ages, philosophers have pondered the quandary: If G‑d knows what man will do, how can man be said to have free choice? Conversely, if man does have free choice, it would appear that he is a self-governing authority whom G‑d does not control. How is it possible for a mortal to act independently? Doesn’t G‑d govern His world?

The Rambam sets out the issues in his Hilchos Teshuvah, stating:1

A person should not wonder: How is it possible for man to do whatever he wants and to be responsible for his own deeds? Is it possible for anything to happen in this world without the permission and the desire of its Creator?…

One must know that everything is done in accord with His will, and, nevertheless, we are responsible for our deeds.

How is [this apparent contradiction resolved]?… The Creator desired that man have free choice and be responsible for his deeds….

One might ask: Since G‑d knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked?

If He knows that he will be righteous, [it appears] impossible for him not to be righteous….

Know that the resolution to this question [can be described as]: “Its measure is longer than the earth,”2 …. [As a basis for the comprehension of the matter,] you must know and understand the principle which I state:

We already explained in the second chapter of Hilchos Yesodai HaTorah, that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not know with a knowledge that is external from Him as do men…. Instead, He, may His name be praised, and His knowledge are one. Mortal knowledge cannot comprehend this concept in its entirety.

Past and Future

The Rambam’s words have attracted the attention of the commentaries. For on the surface, the concept of G‑d’s omniscience does not necessarily represent a challenge to the concept of free choice. As R. Moshe Almoshino3 explains and this is a fundamental concept accepted by any believer G‑d fuses the past, the present, and the future as one. Therefore, just as the fact that we know that a person performed an action in the past is not considered an infringement on his free choice; so, too, G‑d’s knowledge of his future choice does not prevent him from choosing as he desires.

R. Moshe Almoshino continues, illustrating the concept with another example: people who are clairvoyant and know the precise details of what their colleagues will do. Can anyone say that the clairvoyant’s knowledge influences the other person’s conduct?

Or to cite a more obvious example: Everyone knows that a rock dropped from a window will fall. Now, what is making the rock fall? Gravity or our knowledge?

Similarly in the personal sphere, a person has free choice. He determines how he will conduct himself on his own initiative without being dependent on anyone else. G‑d knows what he will choose, but His knowledge does not affect the person’s choice.4

The Uniqueness of G‑d’s Knowledge

There is, however, a basic difference between knowing the laws of nature and knowing how a person will choose. For the laws of nature follow an established and predictable pattern. What a person will choose, however, is by definition not predictable.5 How then can it be known by G‑d? To that the Rambam answers that the nature of His knowledge differs from ours and can never really be fully understood by us.

As he explains, with regard to mortal knowledge, man (the knower), the object he knows, and the process of knowing, are three separate entities. With regard to G‑d, by contrast, they are all one. He is the Knower, the object of knowledge, and the knowledge itself.6 As opposed to man who operates within a framework that exists independently, outside of himself, there is nothing apart from G‑d. He created everything ex nihilo. Before creation, nothing not even the potential for anything existed, and He brought everything into existence “from the truth of His Being.”7 Therefore, His knowledge and the objects He knows are one with Him. As such, even the inner thoughts within a person’s heart are innately known to Him even before that person has conceived them.

This explanation, however, raises a second difficulty. G‑d’s knowledge is not a separate factor, isolated from the world at large. On the contrary, it is His knowledge that provides the world with its life-energy and brings it into being at every moment. In contrast to mortal knowledge that attempts to comprehend the nature of existence, seeing it for what it is, G‑d’s knowledge defines the nature of existence, making it what it is. What G‑d knows becomes reality; indeed, it causes that reality to come into being. Hence, if G‑d knows what man will choose, seemingly, that knowledge will compel man to make that choice.

Indeed, with regard to material entities, this is indeed so. As our Sages explain,8 a blade of grass does not sprout unless there is a spiritual force compelling it to grow. And as the Baal Shem Tov explains,9 even a fallen leaf tossed to and fro by the wind is being moved by Divine Providence.

Where Man Can Choose

This is not true only of material entities, but applies even with regard to man’s endeavors and achievements. As our Sages state,10 our attainment of intellectual prowess, financial success, and other accomplishments are pre-ordained. Needless to say, every person must labor and toil to reach his potential, but this whether he will invest this effort is also foreknown. In contrast, our Divine service is left to our initiative. As our Sages declare:11 “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.”

Nevertheless, although the initiative is left to man, at the outset, G‑d knows the outcome of man’s choice. As our Sages comment:12 “The Holy One, blessed be He, knows what has been and what will be.” That passage continues, discussing His knowledge of our people’s sins and their repentance for them, implying that these too are governed by Divine Providence.

Two Different Motifs

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the Divine Providence that governs material concerns and the Divine Providence that governs man and his commitment to Divine service the focus of our power of choice.

The world at large was created “for the sake of the Jewish people” and “for the sake of the Torah,”13 i.e., it does not have a self-contained purpose. It is not the object of G‑d’s inner desire, but rather exists merely to create a setting for the Jews’ Divine service. To facilitate the creation of that setting, a defined pattern is brought into existence that determines the functioning of every being and every future event that exists within that framework. With regard to these entities, there is no concept of choice. On the contrary, G‑d’s will is fixed and set. As a consequence, it compels the created beings to carry out His desires.

G‑d’s desire for our Divine service, by contrast, stems from the inner dimensions of His will, a level undefined and unlimited as He Himself. It is above the framework of creation. Therefore it is not palpably felt within a human being and does not compel his conduct.

Since this level of will stems from G‑d’s essence, the level from which His choice originates, it generates the possibility for man to choose. For within His essence there is the possibility for opposites to exist. Hence this dimension of His will also allows the possibility for the existence of opposites i.e., His desire for the Torah and its mitzvos and His willingness to consent to their violation so that a Jew can experience teshuvah. As a consequence, man is given the potential for choice.14

Ultimately, however, the inner dimensions of G‑d’s desire will also blossom into fulfillment. How could it be otherwise? This is the purpose of all existence, the reason the world and all of its individual elements were brought into being. Is it possible that anything could prevent His inner will from being fulfilled?

G‑d gives man a choice so that man’s commitment to Divine service will stem from the depths of his being. A person feels and indeed, this is the reality15 that he can determine the course of his actions. For G‑d’s intent is that, instead of being prompted by external or superficial qualities, man will resolve on his own initiative to make a deep-hearted commitment to Divine service.

The choice man exercises, however, does nothing more than set the pace at which G‑d’s desire will be fulfilled.16 A person may choose to follow a course that temporarily gives evil a foothold, before through teshuvah obliterating it entirely. Or he may decide to follow a course that does not involve any backward steps at all. Either way, the eventual result is that he will come to an ardent commitment to Divine service. For there is no other alternative. He is a Jew. And “no Jew can and no Jew desires to remain separate from G‑dliness.”

The Greater Picture

Similar concepts apply with regard to the world at large. “The world was created solely for the purpose of Mashiach ,”17 i.e., to create a setting where G‑d’s desire for a dwelling in the material realm18 will be realized. Is there any question whether or not this purpose and this desire will be consummated?

He, however, entrusted the fulfillment of this purpose to man, enabling him to become “a partner in creation.”19 Accordingly, man determines the rhythm of the movement toward this goal. And so, our Prophets20 speak of the Redemption coming “at its [appointed] time,” or being “hastened.” As our Sages explain:21 “If [mankind] merits: ‘I will hasten it’; if they do not merit, it will come ‘in its time.’” The ramifications of man’s choice, however, do not extend beyond creating the time frame. The ultimate goal of the process, the coming of the Redemption, has been determined by G‑d.

Goal-Oriented Action

The knowledge of these concepts at both a personal and a cosmic level prods us to work towards their realization. There is nothing more liberating and empowering than the awareness of your potential and the realization that you have the capacity to express it fully.

Why does a person stumble in the realization of his spiritual potential?22 For one of three reasons:

a) he acts impulsively and instinctively, responding to his feelings without controlling them;

b) he is unaware of his spiritual potential and its powers; or

c) he is daunted by the challenge and does not realize that the choice is in his own hands; that if he truly desires, he can realize his spiritual goals.

When, by contrast, a person appreciates that his soul is “an actual part of G‑d,”23 and knows that, at all times, he has the potential to express this inner truth, a confident resolve will well up within him. As he appreciates the purpose of our existence, he will actively seek his role in this initiative and endeavor to influence others to join in this thrust, enabling the G‑dliness within his soul and within the world to blossom and flourish.24