Adapted from
Sefer HaSichos 5749, Vol. II, p. 536ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5750, p. 517ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Shelach, 5745

A Pillar of Our Faith

The Rambam writes:1

Every person is fit to be righteous like Moshe our teacher, or wicked like Yerovam…. There is no one who compels him, decrees upon him, or leads him to either of these two paths. Instead, it is he on his own initiative and thought who tends to the path he desires….

This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests] the Torah and its commandment[s], as it is written:2 “Behold! I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil,]”… i.e., the choice is yours.

Any one of the mortal acts which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil…. The Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Instead, everything is left to their [own choice].

G‑d did not create man to be an automaton. Instead, He gave him free choice, which distinguishes him from all other forms of life.3 All other existence is ruled by the laws of nature. Man, by contrast, has the power to control his conduct, and act according to his own initiative.

Two Types of Choice

The exercise of free choice lies at the heart of our Divine service. We have the option of carrying out G‑d’s will, or ignoring it, Heaven forbid. Our challenge is to “choose life,”4 living our lives as He desires them to be led. In particular, two types of positive choice are expected of us:

a) Obedience to the mitzvos of the Torah. G‑d has given us a multi-faceted set of deeds which we are obligated to perform, and others which we are forbidden to perform. At times, doing the deeds required of us or observing the prohibitions imposed upon us involves inner conflict, for the doing or not doing may run contrary to our natural tendencies and desires. Our power of choice enables us to control and negate any inner obstacles that hinder the fulfillment of G‑d’s will.

b) Molding one’s character to conform to G‑d’s will, even when there is no explicit commandment to do so. To explain: There is an entire realm of activities referred to as reshus, “what is permitted.” We are not told what we must do, nor what we must avoid. But that does not mean there is no G‑dly mode of conduct appropriate for these activities. The initiative, however, is ours. We must strive to discover G‑d’s will, and then shape our characters accordingly.

These two thrusts are reflected in the mishnah:5 “Make His will your will, so that He may fulfill your will as though it were His will. Set aside your will because of His will, so that He may set aside the will of others before your will.”

Setting aside your will because of His will refers to the challenge of foregoing one’s own desires in order to obey G‑d’s commandments. Making His will your will refers to a greater challenge the molding of one’s character so that it reflects and expresses G‑d’s will even in situations where G‑d’s command is not specific.

Taking the Initiative

The task of molding one’s character represents a more complete expression of our potential for free choice. When a commandment has been given, even though man has the option of obeying or not obeying, the fact that G‑d has given the command spurs obedience, for every Jew has a natural desire to serve G‑d.6

Moreover, when G‑d’s will is explicit, the choice facing man is clear. On the other hand, when G‑d has not given an explicit command, and man has to elevate and refine himself until he appreciates what is expected of him, the challenge and the choice are far more encompassing.7

A New Phase

This approach to Divine service represents the new dimension contributed by this week’s Torah reading. The reading begins:8 Shelach lecha “You may send….” Rashi explains that the people had come to Moshe with a request that spies be sent to explore Eretz Yisrael, and that Moshe had brought their request to G‑d. G‑d had replied: “It is up to you. I am not commanding you. If you desire, send.”

This represented a new phase in our people’s relationship with G‑d. Previously, the Torah had related the commandments which G‑d had given Moshe for the conduct of the Jewish people. It also described certain situations, e.g., the second opportunity to offer the Paschal sacrifice,9 in answer to a query relayed by Moshe to G‑d. But even in those instances, G‑d responded with an explicit command. This is the first occasion in which G‑d leaves the choice to Moshe.

Building G‑d’s Dwelling

This new approach to Divine service that the initiative be given to man is associated with the objective of the spies’ mission: our people’s entry into Eretz Yisrael. The goal of life in Eretz Yisrael is to fashion a dwelling for G‑d within the realities of everyday experience.

More particularly, this dwelling should be established by man’s initiative. Were the dwelling to be established by revelation from above, it would be incomplete. Man as he exists within his own context, and the power of creativity he possesses, would not be reflected within it. When, by contrast, man transforms his own will, and on the basis of this inner metamorphosis proceeds to transform his surroundings, G‑d comes to dwell within our existence.

Facing Failure

Since the focus is on man’s initiative, there is a possibility of error.10 The very term “free choice” implies that one may make the wrong choice. Indeed, in our Torah reading, the wrong choice was actually made.11 The spies returned and spread panic among the Jewish people, making them afraid to enter Eretz Yisrael.

As the narrative indicates,12 however, this error can be corrected through teshuvah, a sincere return to G‑d. In this context as well, the emphasis is on man’s initiative. For teshuvah requires a person to summon inner strength in order to reestablish the bond with G‑d that has been severed through his improper conduct. Indeed, through teshuvah, a person can surpass his previous level of Divine service. As our Sages teach:13 “Perfect tzaddikim (righteous men) cannot stand in the place of a baal teshuvah.”

The possibility exists for teshuvah even without sin. As our Sages say:14 Mashiach will motivate the righteous to turn [to G‑d] in teshuvah.” Through such efforts, the advantage reached through teshuvah can be accomplished without a prior descent. This is the ultimate expression of man’s power: to set out on his own initiative, accomplish his objective, and turn to G‑d with the all-encompassing inner bond that is established through teshuvah.

Our People’s Mission

The above concepts are alluded to in the name of the Torah reading, Shelach. Shelach means “send,” indicating that every person and in a larger sense, the Jewish people as a whole is sent out, caused to leave their natural environment and charged with a mission. This mission enables both the individual and the nation to reach a higher rung.

In a personal sense, this refers to the mission of every soul as it is sent down from the spiritual realms to be enclothed within a material body. This is “a descent for the sake of an ascent,”15 for by using material entities for spiritual purposes, the soul progresses to a higher level than that from which it started.

In a larger sense, this refers to the mission of the Jewish people to make our world a dwelling fit for G‑d. “Sent out” from continent to continent, our nation has labored toward this objective for thousands of years, adding spiritual content to the world through observance of the Torah and its mitzvos.

This objective is no longer an abstract goal. On the contrary, we are standing at the threshold of Redemption, moments before the consummation of this task through the coming of Mashiach. And then we will merit the complete fulfillment of the promise of our Torah reading:16 “I will bring them [there] and they will know the land.” May this take place in the immediate future.