Vayakhel-Pekudei: The paradox of freewill

Judaism calls the unbridled pursuit of self-gratification 'paganism'; modern secular society calls it 'the pursuit of happiness'

The tension between the Jewish way of life and that of modern secular society can be attributed, in part or in whole, to opposing perspectives on man’s expression of freewill. Judaism, with its 613 mitzvot regulating man’s every action, espouses the notion that freewill is expressed in self-controlled commitment to the demands of the Creator. Modern secular society, on the other hand, views practically any limitation on the “pursuit of happiness” as a violation of the individual’s inalienable right to express his freewill.

A profound insight into this disagreement can be found, symbolically, in the most lackluster, yet most fundamental, material used in the construction of the Tabernacle and its appurtenances – the Shittim wood. This wood serves as the basis of almost every vessel in the Tabernacle, as well as forming the very structure of the Tabernacle itself. Interestingly, the only other context – in the entire Torah – in which the name “Shittim” appears, is as the venue of one of the most sinful episodes in the chronicle of Israel’s desert sojourn. The Malbim (Joel 4:18) calls it the “first” of Israel’s sins, and with a body count of 24,000, it certainly ranks first in terms of the number of people killed by God’s wrath.

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Hizkuni on Ex. 25:5) associates the uses of the name, explaining that the Shittim wood for the Tabernacle came from the Shittim place. However, given that the Torah is not merely a historical record, but a book of moral instruction, as its name “Torah” (i.e., “Teaching”) implies, we must ask ourselves if there is not something more to the identity in names. Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin answered in the affirmative, writing that the Shittim wood is a symbol of the evil inclination that had run rampant in Shittim the place.

What is the meaning of this correlation, which intimates that the Tabernacle is built on the evil inclination? Before responding, it is instructive to understand the essence of the evil inclination as expressed in Shittim.

And Israel abided in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Num. 1:3).

From here we learn that the most dissolute of sins – harlotry and idol worship – were committed in Shittim. While this is reason enough to spark God’s ire, something even more iniquitous informs the decadence of Shittim. The Talmud (San. 106a) explains that the worship of Peor demanded the release of all bodily functions, thus typifying total abandon – freedom from any superimposed restrictions. In worshiping Peor man relinquishes all self-control and indulges in his very nature. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains:

The pagan worships deities which represent forces in nature…  For man lustily to partake of nature is, therefore, an act of identifying with such gods. Man actually sees himself as coextensive to nature and therefore craves unlimited indulgence.

Judaism calls this unbridled pursuit of self-gratification “paganism”; modern secular society calls it “the pursuit of happiness.” Now, while Thomas Jefferson’s fundamental declaration on freedom included the seemingly innocuous permit to pursue happiness, modern man has interpreted this as a license to unreservedly pursue self-gratification (to the exclusion, of course, of harming others). Indeed, it is in this “pursuit” that modern man measures the latitude of his freewill. This condition prompted Rabbi Soloveitchik to comment: “Our age is demonstrably pagan, without idol worship as such. It consists of uninhibited peritzut (indulgence).”

But what is wrong with uninhibited indulgence, asks the secular modern, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone? What is wrong, explains Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, is that in so doing, man squanders the very freewill he so longs to exercise:

Willing acceptance of a way of life which does not derive from human nature implies emancipation of man from the bondage of raw nature…  [Conversely, m]an activated by his “own” nature is, in effect, nothing but a robot activated by the forces of nature, just like the cattle grazing in the pasture, which are also “free from Torah and Mitzvot”; that is, from any law externally imposed.

By indulging the senses man does not exhibit his freewill but, on the contrary, succumbs to the pressures of his own nature, like any animal. In contradistinction, by making himself subservient to God, man paradoxically makes himself free of his animal nature. Judaism seeks to ennoble man by providing him the means to exercise his freewill through the acceptance of a system of self-control – Torah and mitzvot – external to his own nature. “In Judaism, man’s Divine image manifests itself precisely in his self-control, the subordination of his craving to the will of God” (R. Soloveitchik).

The reckless abandon evinced in Shittim, relinquishing all control of the self, is the ultimate expression of the evil inclination run amok – at Shittim the Satan prevailed. Rabbi Moshe Haym Ephraim, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, noted a hint to this in that “Shittim” is numerically equivalent to “Satan”. Against this stands the Tabernacle, that sacred space wherein man, having connected to his divine essence through his free-willed self-control, communes with God. What is the meaning, we ask again, of associating Shittim with the Tabernacle?

The answer lies in recognizing the Tabernacle as microcosm of creation. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his “Way of God,” explains that the purpose of creation is for man to achieve his greatest happiness by drawing close to God of his own freewill. To afford man the capacity of freewill, “[he] was created with both a good inclination and an evil inclination” so that he has “the power to incline himself in whichever direction he desires.” Now, given that these inclinations are so fundamental to creation, they must find representation in the microcosm of creation that is the Tabernacle.

Shittim wood, said Rav Tzadok, represents the evil inclination, the propensity for unrestrained indulgence. The evil inclination, however, is not really evil but only made evil by man’s abuse. Numerous Midrashim explain that evil inclination (yetzer) is actually the source of man’s creativity (yetzira) without which “the world would not endure”. As such, the very structure of the Tabernacle is made of Shittim.

The Tabernacle, however, is not a microcosm of the world imperfect, but rather of the world consummate. The Shittim wood is thus covered in gold or copper; it is restrained. I suggest that these precious metals, which provide restraint, are symbolic of varying aspects of the inclination to good. By employing the Shittim – the evil inclination – within limitations and dimensions dictated by God, the gold, the copper, the good inclination, elevates it to fulfilling its holy purpose.

The Midrash (Tanchuma) correlates the Shittim wood and the Shittim place with its mention in the prophet Joel who writes that in the end of days, “… a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim” (4:18). Rav Tzadok explains this prophecy to mean that ultimately Shittim will be purified: the power of the evil inclination will be channeled toward fulfilling man’s purpose as represented in the house of the Lord. The tension drawn by the expression of freewill finds its resolution in the divine – in the realization that the pursuit of happiness and the fulfillment of God’s will are really one and the same.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at