Parshat Toledot is a paradigm for a Midrashic inquiry into how much free will we actually have. The focus starts with Yitschak. God seems to have stacked the deck against Yitschak so that he could not bestow earthly blessings to whomever he chose. Furthermore, as events unfolded, God has to intervene in an even more dramatic fashion when Yitschak’s actions collided with Jewish destiny.
What was Yitschak not meant to see?
Much intrigue surrounds Yaakov’s disguising himself as Eisav to get the blessings. However, one opinion in Midrash Tanchuma is that Yitschak was blind for a simple reason – so he can be fooled by Yaakov. וְלֹא יְהֵא יוֹדֵעַ יִצְחָק לְמִי הוּא מְבָרֵךְ “And (Yitschak) won’t know whom he is blessing.”
According to the Midrash, Yitschak’s blindness serves another purpose – equally as mysterious. God did not want Yitschak to be distressed by what the wives of his beloved son, Eisav, were doing. Believe it or not, they were burning incense to idolatry right in Yitschak’s home. The home that served as headquarters for Yitschak’s life mission to stamp out idolatry and spread monotheism to the world. A mission he inherited from the man who first discovered God – his father Avraham.
Perhaps if Yitschak knew what was happening in his home it would have compromised Eisav’s status as the favorite son. Yet, for some reason God wanted it to unfold in exactly this way, sewing enmity between the brothers until the Messianic era.
Timing is everything
God intervened in yet another way. The plan to receive Eisav’s blessings could have gone terribly wrong if Eisav showed up too early. According to the Midrash, God “arranged” that every time Eisav caught an animal and tied it up, it somehow broke loose and he had to start again.
So exactly what are we in control of
Midrash Tanchuma actually delineates where our free will remains intact: Our hands – what we do, our feet – where we go, and our mouth – what we say. Which essentially means that we have free will to lead a meaningful and exalted life – or not. As the Midrash expounds upon regarding where we choose to go in life:
בִּקֵּשׁ לֵילֵךְ לִדְבַר מִצְוָה, לְבַקֵּר חוֹלִים, לְנַחֵם אֲבֵלִים, לִקְבֹּר מֵתִים וְלִגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים,הוֹלֵךְ. בִּקֵּשׁ לֵילֵךְ לִדְבַר עֲבֵרָה, לִנְאֹף וְלִרְצֹחַ וְלִגְנֹב הוֹלֵךְ.
“A man may choose to go about in the performance of good deeds—to visit the sick, comfort the mourner, bury the dead, and to do other charitable deeds; but conversely, if he so desires, he can use them to transgress—to commit adultery, to murder, or to steal.”
No sooner did the Midrash list what we are in control of, where we go and what we say, the Midrash conceded that even those can be taken away. For example, Moses didn’t feel worthy to go to Egypt and negotiate with Pharaoh. Nor did Yonah want to go to Ninveh and warn the people to repent.
Both went against their will.
On the other hand, the Midrash lists what we definitely don’t have control over. We often find ourselves “accidentally” seeing, hearing (or even smelling) things. Evidently this was meant to be. Perhaps the Midrash is referring to the idea made popular by the great Chasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov. He believed that everything you see and hear is for a reason. God is sending you a subtle, or not so subtle, message. However, you still have the choice to reflect upon it, act upon it, or ignore it.
God rescinds Yitschak’s power of speech
Perhaps the most dramatic example in all of Tanach of God controlling our speech is right here in our Parsha. Yitschak experienced nothing short of terror upon realizing that Yaakov had fooled him. Yet Yitschak’s words seemed unusually measured and unemotional.
וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד יִצְחָ֣ק חֲרָדָה֮ גְּדֹלָ֣ה עַד־מְאֹד֒ וַיֹּ֡אמֶר מִֽי־אֵפ֡וֹא ה֣וּא הַצָּֽד־צַיִד֩ וַיָּ֨בֵא לִ֜י וָאֹכַ֥ל מִכֹּ֛ל בְּטֶ֥רֶם תָּב֖וֹא וָאֲבָרֲכֵ֑הוּ גַּם־בָּר֖וּךְ יִהְיֶֽה׃
“Isaac was seized with violent trembling. “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me so that I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed.” (Genesis 27:33)
According to Midrash Tanchuma, if Yitschak’s words seemed reserved it’s because what we have recorded in the Torah is not what Yitschak meant to say, His real intention was to curse Yaakov. However God intervened and removed Yitschak’s free will.
וּבַדִּין הָיָה שֶׁיְקַלְּלֶנּוּ, אֶלָּא: … נָתַתָּ בְּלִבּוֹ וּבֵרְכוֹ,
“It would seem justifiable that he (Yitschak) would curse him .. however You (God) planted (a new thought) into his heart and he (Yitschak) blessed him (instead).”
History repeats itself with Boaz and Ruth
By no coincidence, the very same term וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד “and he trembled” appears in the Book of Ruth to describe the trembling that Boaz experienced when he discovered a young woman (Ruth) sleeping beside him in the granary.
וַיְהִי֙ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד הָאִ֖ישׁ וַיִּלָּפֵ֑ת וְהִנֵּ֣ה אִשָּׁ֔ה שֹׁכֶ֖בֶת מַרְגְּלֹתָֽיו׃
“In the middle of the night, the man trembled in fear and pulled back when he discovered that there was a woman lying at his feet. “(Book of Ruth 3:8)
Once again, despite his overwhelming fright, Boaz blessed her:
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּרוּכָ֨ה אַ֤תְּ לַה’ בִּתִּ֔י
“And he said ‘may you be blessed to God my daughter.” (Book of Ruth 3:10)
The Midrash on Ruth (Ruth Rabbah) says it was another case of divine intervention. Boaz was the spiritual leader of the community. He would have been justified in cursing a young woman for being so bold as to sneak in and lay beside him. However, God had other plans and put a different thought into Boaz’s heart.
Man cannot interfere with Jewish destiny
It is clear from the examples of Yitschak and Boaz that God intervenes at key junctures in Jewish history. Our Forefather Yaakov, from whom the Jewish people emerged, cannot be cursed. Nor Ruth, from whom emerged King David and ultimately the Messiah.
What about the rest of us?
If we are not makers and shakers of Jewish history does that mean that God will never intervene in our lives. The Talmud provides the classic answer:
וְאָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: הַכֹּל בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם, חוּץ מִיִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם..
“And Rabbi Ḥanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” (Talmud Berachot 33B).
Although in this world we will not fully understand it, God operates at the intersection of free will and destiny.