“We must believe in free will. We have no choice.” This observation made by Isaac Bashevis Singer introduces one of the greatest enigmas in Jewish and general philosophy – free will versus determinism. Many have attempted to solve this paradox, but not one philosopher has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory solution.

In Midrash Tanchuma, we read one of the most daring statements ever made in religious literature. It is a telling example of the boldness of our sages who were not afraid to deal with a problem head-on.

On the words, “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt” (Bereshith 39:1), the midrash comments, “This is what is referred to when it says in Tehillim (66:5) ‘Go and see the works of God. He is awesome in His dealing (allila) with mankind.'” On the surface, this verse seems to express a general Jewish belief, which teaches man about the awesomeness of God. However, the midrash realizes that the word allila is unconventional, for it continues:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha says, “Even those events which You bring upon us, You bring with allila. Before God created the world, He created the Angel of Death on the first day. From where do we know this? Rabbi Barchia said, ‘Because it is written (when the creation had just started): there was darkness upon the face of the deep. This is a reference to the Angel of Death who darkens the face of all creatures. Man was created on the sixth day and an allila was placed before him so that he (man) would bring death upon the world, as it is written: And on the day that you will eat from it (i.e. the Tree of Knowledge) you will surely die (Bereshith 2:17)’”.

This means that from the outset it was determined that Adam and Chava (Eve) would be forced to eat from the tree. They had to be mortal since God had already created the necessity for death. It now becomes clear what the word allila means according to the midrash: false accusation, or pretext. Yet, according to the plain text of the Torah, death came upon man because man chose to eat from the tree.

In case we may have any doubt about the correctness of this interpretation, let us read the continuation of the midrash in which the following analogy is brought:

To what can we compare this case? To a man who wished to divorce his wife. Before he went home, he wrote a get (bill of divorce) and entered the house with the get in his pocket. He then sought an allila to give it to her. He told her, “Pour me a cup that I may drink.” She poured it for him. When he took the cup from her, he said, “Here is your get.” She said to him, “What did I do wrong?” He replied, “Go out of my house because you poured for me a lukewarm cup.” She then said, “Did you already know that I would pour for you a lukewarm cup that you wrote a get and brought it in your hand?” So Adam said to the Holy One blessed be He, ‘Lord of the universe, before You created the world the Torah was with You for 2,000 years (primordial). You wrote in the Torah about a man who dies in a tent (Bamidbar 19:14), and now you come to accuse me that I brought death to the world!!’

The midrash continues in a similar vein, relating the case where Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it (Bamidbar 20). There, it is proven from the text that this sin was already determined long before Moshe made his mistake so that he would not enter the Land of Israel. Still, Moshe is blamed for having brought this on himself! The third example brought by the midrash relates to Joseph and the exile in Egypt. In Bereshith (15:13), we read that Avraham is told by God, “Know for sure that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will be slaves and oppressed for four hundred years.” Therefore God brought the entire affair of Yaacov and his sons – the jealousy and hatred of the brothers toward Joseph, the sale of Joseph, his elevation to high office in Egypt and, ultimately, the arrival of Yaacov and his sons to Egypt in order to fulfill what He had said to Avraham. In other words: Why should the brothers be blamed for having caused all this when, in fact, the entire outcome was already decided in advance and was therefore an allila upon man?!

Those who study these narratives very carefully will realize, however, that the midrash was not obliged to give this interpretation. It could have allowed for an explanation which would be much more in line with the idea of free will and would be easier on God. But it did not. It took the difficult road, to emphasize the paradox of free will versus determinism, and it dared to accuse God of a deliberate and false accusation against man. When Jews declare Hakol min hashamayim chutz me-yirath shamayim – “everything is from heaven (determinism) except the fear of heaven (free will)” – they proclaim a profound condition of Jewish belief. It is not that sometimes determinism reigns and other times free will is given to man. Rather, they function simultaneously. God is responsible for the sin of man, everything is decided beforehand, yet man still has the opportunity to choose and must pay the consequences. This is not only one of the great paradoxes of human existence but it also proves the utter “otherness” of God. It was Friedrich Durrenmatt who once said, “He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality.” (The Physicists, “21 Points,” 1962 )

Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo