We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice.
This observation made by Isaac Bashevis Singer introduces one of the greatest problems in Jewish and secular philosophy – the dilemma of freedom of will versus determinism. Many have attempted to solve the issue, but not one philosopher has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory response.
In Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 4, we come across one of the most daring statements ever made in religious literature. It is a most telling example of the boldness of our sages, who were not afraid to deal with the problem of freedom of will “head on.”
On the words “And Yosef was brought down to Egypt,” (Beresehit 39: 1) the midrash comments: “This is what is referred to when it says: ‘Come and see the works of God. He is terrible in His dealing (allila) with men.’” (Tehilim 66:5)
Alila – God’s False Accusation
The expression “allila” is open to many translations and is unclear. Still, on the surface, this verse in which the word appears seems to express a principal Jewish belief that teaches Man about the greatness of God. Viewed in this light, the translation of “allila” seems to convey the concept of awesomeness. However, it is clear that the midrash realizes that the expression, “allila,” is in fact most unconventional, for it continues with the following words:
Says Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, “Even those events which You [God] 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? Said Rabbi Barchiah, “Because it is written [when the creation had just started]: ‘there was darkness upon the face of the deep.’ (Bereshit 1:2) This is a reference to the Angel of Death who darkens the face of all creatures. Adam was created on the sixth day and an ‘allila’ was placed before him so that he 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.’ (Ibid 2:12).
This means that from the outset it was determined that Adam and Eve would be forced to eat from the tree, because 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, pretext or insidiousness. Yet, according to the plain text of the Torah, death came on Man because Man chose to eat from the tree.
In case we question the correctness of this interpretation, let us read the continuation of this 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 said, “Go out of my house because you poured for me a lukewarm cup.” Said she to him, “Did you already know that I would pour for you a lukewarm cup, so 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 [i.e., eternally]. 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!!” (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 4)
The Waters of Meriva
The midrash continues in a similar vein, recounting the story of Moshe and the waters of “meriva” (the episode in which Moshe sinned by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed him after he has asked for water for the people of Israel. (Bamidbar 20) The midrash proves from the text that this sin was already determined long before Moshe erred in this way, and still he was blamed for having brought about his own downfall due to this “transgression.”
The third example brought by the midrash relates to Yosef and the exile in Egypt. In Bereshit we read that Avraham is told by God, “Know for sure that your descendants will be aliens in a land which is not theirs and will be slaves and oppressed for four hundred years.” (Bereshit 15:13) Says the midrash: God blamed the entire affair of Ya’akov and his sons, the jealousy and the hatred between the brothers and Yosef, the sale of Yosef, his elevation to high office in Egypt and ultimately the coming of Ya’akov and his sons to Egypt, on all of them in order to fulfill what He had said to Avraham.
In other words: the brothers are blamed for having caused all this to happen when, in actual fact, the whole outcome was already decided in advance! Therefore, it is an “allila” upon Man!
Those who study this narrative very carefully will realize, however, that the midrash was not forced to give this interpretation. It could have allowed for an explanation which would lean towards the concept of freedom of will. Therefore we must conclude that it deliberately took this route to emphasize the paradox of freedom of will versus determinism and to teach us an important lesson. When Jews declare, “Hakol bidey shamaim chutz meyirat shamaim – everything is from Heaven [determinism] except the fear of Heaven [freedom of will]” (Berachot 33a), they pronounce a most profound tenet of Jewish belief. It is not that there are certain times when determinism operates, and other times when freedom of will is given to humanity. Rather, they function simultaneously. On one level, human beings seem to have the opportunity to choose, however, on a different level, all is pre-determined. This is one of the great paradoxes of human existence. It reminds us of an observation by Friedrich Dürrenmatt who once said that “he who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.” (Plays and Essays, p 156).
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Nathan Lopes Cardozo