The Free-Will Issue (Again)
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
And He [G-d] said, "Take your son, your only son whom you love, Yitzchak,
and go to the land of Moriah . . ." (Bereishis 22:2)
YOUR SON: He answered him, "I have two sons." So He (G-d) told him, "Your
only one," and he answered, "This is the only one to his mother, and this
is the only one to his mother." He said, "The one you love," and he
answered, "I love both of them." So, He said, "Yitzchak." Why did He not
reveal this to him from the beginning? In order not to startle and confuse
him, so that he should love the mitzvah and receive reward for each word.
In other words, Rashi is explaining, G-d wanted Avraham's choice to bring
Yitzchak up as a sacrifice to be just that: A choice. Had G-d approached
Avraham out of the blue and requested Yitzchak outright, Avraham would have
been flooded with all kinds of thoughts and emotions, and more than likely
would have agreed to the commandment on the spot quite automatically, out
of his love for G-d and his intense desire to be loyal to His will.
Perhaps, after Avraham had acquiesced, the full impact of his decision
would have hit him, and he might have reconsidered. However, it would have
been highly unlikely that Avraham would have changed his mind even after
the fact, even had he felt some remorse for having answered so quickly.
Nevertheless, it is not the same. For, honorable people do not like to go
back on their word, especially regarding promises made to G-d, and that
itself can act like coercion when the decision is remade after reality sets
in. Thus, neither decision, in such a case, ends up being a true free-will
decision, because the first time it was made impulsively ("shoot first, ask
questions later"), and the second time it is influenced by the previous
However, did it really matter? After all, the Akeidah is about being
willing to sacrifice oneself, and if need be, one's children, for the sake
of G-d. And, "Ma'aseh Avos siman l'banim" means that Avraham's willingness
to do so, no matter how he came to that decision, would leave an indelible
spiritual imprint of self-sacrifice for G-d on the Jewish psyche. In any
case, Jews reading the story would certainly learn about their ancestor's
level of sacrifice for G-d.
However, the Torah, as Rashi alludes, is telling us otherwise. The Akeidah
teaches us not just about sacrificing to G-d, but about free-will as
well. More important to G-d than Yitzchak being sacrificed on the altar of
loyalty, was Avraham's usage of that for which creation was made, which in
turn, reflects back on the entire concept of free-will.
After all, sacrificing to G-d is as old as man himself, be it metaphorical
or the real thing. The whole concept of a cult - which has been prevalent
all through history, especially in Avraham's time, and tragically, is alive
and flourishing even today - is based upon making giant sacrifices for a
'higher' cause. However, it is the objective of the cult to BREAK the
person's will along the path to extreme loyalty to its aspirations, as the
following definition explains:
CULTS: Groups with religious, political, psychological, and other
ideologies at their core, which almost universally offer as their central
theme a special, new psychological awareness handed down by an indisputable
and arbitrary authority that uses the technic of thought reform (intense
indoctrination or re-socialization, coercive persuasion, brainwashing -
i.e., the systematic manipulation of social and psychologic influence . .
.). (The Merck Manual, Fifteenth Edition)
Thus, in spite of the cries to the contrary by uninformed and
misunderstanding parents of 'Ba'aeli Teshuvah' (Returnees to Torah
Judaism), the Torah is not interested in creating or sustaining a
cult. Yes, it wants and even demands loyalty from its members, but not
against their will, but as a result of their own free-will choice. Problems
arise when we try any other approach to creating inseparable bonds between
Torah and Jew (one man who took fifty years to re-examine his Jewish roots
remembers to this very day being beaten with a ruler by his Cheder Rebi).
In fact, we will now see the extent to which G-d Himself desires the use of
free-will in developing loyalty to Torah and in everyday life.
Egypt imposed itself strongly upon the people to hasten to send them out of
the land, for they said, "We are dying!" (Shemos 12:33)
We are taught by the Torah, re-taught by the rabbis, and reminded by the
Haggadah Shel Pesach, that when it came time for the Jewish people to
finally leave Egypt after being there for 210 years, they did so very
quickly. Why the rush? Because, we are also taught, that the Jewish
people had been so close to spiritual obliteration at the time, had they
stayed a moment longer, they would have lost the right to redemption.
However, after a little analysis, one MUST come to the conclusion that this
is not true. First, as the Pri Tzaddik explains (VaAira), every plague had
a dual effect: to destroy Egyptian society while spiritually enhancing the
Jewish people, an inevitable result of a miracle. Thus, from the first
plague of blood onward, the Jewish people had begun their spiritual ascent
out of spiritual oblivion.
Second, by the final plague of the death of the firstborn, we are told that
G-d Himself carried out that plague, a phenomenal revelation of the light
of G-d, something not possible for a people teetering on the verge of
spiritual annihilation. Just to perform Bris Milah and eat the
Pesach-Offering meant the Jewish people had to be holding on a relatively
high level of spiritual purity.
Third, when it came time to banish the Jewish people from Egypt, who came
in search of whom? It was the great, self-appointed god, Pharaoh, who went
door-to-door in search of Moshe, and not the other way around - hardly a
position of honor. And, this was after the Egyptian people told him, let
them go, "for we are all dying!" (Shemos 12:33), implying that they had
already been beaten and were on the way out.
Since Kabbalah explains that the Egyptian people represented the chief
source of spiritual impurity in the world at that time, being beaten means
not just physically, but spiritually as well. Applying the well-known
principle of the spiritual realm, that spiritual impurity cannot be down
unless spiritual purity itself is up, this corroboration shows that by the
night of the Seder and the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were
nowhere near the point of spiritual oblivion at the time.
Thus, the question returns, why the rush out of Egypt?
Precisely because spiritual impurity was down, and almost completely
out. For, had it been allowed to dissipate into eternal nothingness, then
the yetzer hara, man's troublesome and antagonistic evil inclination would
have gone with it, and with the two of them, the entire concept of
free-will. As the Leshem explains, at that stage of history, it would have
been premature to do away with free-will. (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 408)
What was 'killing' the yetzer hara was the presence of the Jewish
people. The faith in G-d they had built up over the previous year,
plague-by-plague, and their performance of the mitzvos of Milah and Korban
Pesach, was attracting a very high-powered spiritual light from an
extremely high spiritual level, and the net affect was to elevate the
Jewish people while crushing the Egyptian nation and the world of spiritual
impurity that they represented.
Therefore, to save spiritual impurity - NOT the Jewish people - B'nei
Yisroel had to go, AND FAST!
(The only question might be, why? Aren't we supposed to work to eliminate
evil and the yetzer hara? The answer, of course, is yes. However, much of
the light the Jewish people had received at that time had been a gift, a
large part in the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov. They had
participated in drawing it down, but had not been the main source of its
entry into the world of man, and therefore creation demanded that free-will
continue to exist until Moshiach comes and rids the world of evil completely.)
Thus, explains Kabbalah, G-d values the concept of free-will and our
ability to use it to the point that He will even shore up the side of evil,
if necessary, to balance out the side of good, just to give us a REAL
choice. The only problem is that, at the most crucial point in Jewish
history, when the nation stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai to accept Torah and
"sign on the dotted line," we are taught that we made anything BUT a
free-will decision, as the Talmud explains:
"They stood at the base (literally, "under") the mountain" (Shemos 19:17):
Rav Avidimi bar Chama bar Chasa, "This is to teach that The Holy One,
Blessed is He, held the mountain over them like a barrel and said, 'If you
accept the Torah, then fine, but if not, then this will be your burial!'."
Sounds like coercion to me!
"We will do and we will understand." (Shemos 24:7)
The Talmud continues:
Rav Acha bar Ya'akov said, "From this there is a great protest against the
acceptance of Torah. (Rashi: If they are called to judgment and asked,
'Why did you not uphold that which you accepted, they can answer that they
accepted it out of force.") Nevertheless, the generation of Achashveros's
time accepted it. (Rashi: Out of love as a result of the miracle that had
occurred for them.) As it says, 'The Jews upheld and accepted' (Esther
9:27); they upheld that which had been previously accepted. (Shabbos 88a)
Thus, it was true: Acceptance of Torah had not been under the best of
circumstances, as per the mandate of creation. The Jewish people had been
coerced into the acceptance of Torah, as the Talmud makes pointedly clear,
necessitating a re-acceptance of Torah 960 years later after the miraculous
routing of Haman and his Final Solution.
However, had the Jews of Moshe's time really been coerced? Doesn't the
Torah itself testify to the fact that they had accepted the Torah with the
words, "We will do and we will understand" (Shemos 24:7) something for
which they received high accolades? If yes, then what was the point of
holding the mountain over their heads and threatening them with their lives?
Therefore, the Midrash explains that G-d didn't really hold up the mountain
and threaten them with their lives. The situation in which they found
themselves in at the time the Torah was to be given, having been taken out
from the depths of humiliating and life-taking slavery, to the heights of
victory over the most powerful nation at that time through fantastic and
unimaginable miracles - how could they even consider turning down
Torah?! Their own minds and hearts 'coerced' them into saying, "YES!!"
with complete enthusiasm and devotion.
In other words, on their last night in Egypt, while the forces of evil and
impurity were being hopelessly crippled, the Mt. Sinai experience
completely suspended them, completely closing the mouth of the yetzer
hara. That is always the power of a miracle, and the bigger the miracle,
the more it is so. Thus, the Talmud teaches, once Moshiach comes and "does
his thing," the mouth of the yetzer hara will be forever closed, and
free-will will become a fond memory (Succah 52a) - along with the
opportunity to EARN additional reward in the World-to-Come.
However, the miracle wrought in Mordechai's time had been a 'hidden'
one. That is, it happened through means that could be misconstrued as
'natural,' though amazing, by those who chose to ignore the hand of G-d in
the events that occurred. That's part of the reason why the Megillah ends
on somewhat of a down-note, when it mentions that not everyone held
Mordechai in such high esteem, in spite of all that he had accomplished as
the savior of the Jewish people of that time.
Thus, between the miracles of Har Sinai, and the miracles of Purim, the
sides of good and evil had been given the opportunity by Heaven to reach
somewhat of an equilibrium to enable a free-will choice once again. This
allowed the Jewish people the opportunity to properly choose Torah as per
the mandate of creation, as we have since chosen on an ongoing basis.
Providing, that is, that people choose to live in reality. For, the basis
of free-will is the acceptance of three ideas: 1) G-d and His involvement
in history; 2) Torah and all that it teaches; and 3) the reality of the
yetzer hara. Only by living with the reality of these three concepts can a
person rise to the level of free-will decisions, for they will be able to
recognize good from evil and evil from good, and decide in the direction of
one or the other.
Thus, in the end, this is really what the Akeidah is all about. It is
about our commitment to maintain that which enables free-will, and to use
it. It is about not falling into a life of habit, or one devoted to the
avoidance of pain, thus eliminating important factors of our
decision-making process, as much of the Western world has done for so long
now, and often we, as Jews, seem to be capable of doing so as well.
In fact, fascinatingly, the word 'Akeidah' is similar to the world
'Akudim,' the name used in Kabbalah to describe one of the first spiritual
realities, long before G-d's holy and sublime light made it down to the
time creation was eventually going to exist. As such, it is a 'world' that
represents the original Will of G-d in making creation, something that the
Akeidah manifested within creation: the existence and usage of free-will to
earn our eternal reward in the World-to-Come.
PART THREE: The Ultimate Historical Process
However, obtaining the 'more' is a long, phenomenal, and awesome
intellectual and spiritual journey that is the basis of the most mystical
Torah teachings of Kabbalah. Whereas the revealed Torah deals with creation
from the first 'bais' of 'Bereishis' and onward, Kabbalah, for the most
part, deals with that which came BEFORE the bais, that which led up to the
moment the First Cause willed physical creation into being.
The discussion begins once the second posuk of the Torah is made the first
posuk, and the first posuk, the second (Zohar 1:16a), as follows:
The Earth was null (tohu) and void, and darkness was upon the face of the
Deep, and the Spirit of God hovered above the water. In the beginning, God
created Heaven and Earth.
The obvious problem with this version is that there is a reference to an
earth in the first posuk that is not actually created until the second
posuk! The not-so-obvious solution to this problem is that the 'earth' of
Posuk 1 is not the same 'earth' of Posuk 2. Indeed, that is exactly what
. . . All of the 'kings' were dinin gedolim (literally, 'large judgments')
and therefore, when they died, they broke up and fell below, far from their
source; only the Sparks and the Broken Pieces fell . . . The 'reign' of the
kings is called 'HaNekudos' (The Points) by the Arizal. However, their
deaths, the breaking apart, and all that occurred to them and all they
underwent from that point onward is called 'Olam HaTohu' - the 'World of
Null.' (Sefer Drushei Olam HaTohu, Maimar HaKlalli, 4)
It would take much time to fully explain each of the terms mentioned
here. What is relevant to this discussion, though, is the general idea of
what existed prior to creation, what it means to the post-creation world,
and the knowledge that whatever process God used to make creation, it was
the very best necessary to give man free-will and the potential to earn his
way to the World-to-Come. (Derech Hashem 1:2:1)
This is the general idea: In advance of creation, as we recognize it,
there existed spiritual entities, referred to above as 'kings,' that were
made to 'die,' that is, they had their internal light removed from them,
like a soul that is withdrawn from a human body. This occurred on a higher
spiritual plane than the one on which creation was made, and the result was
that these spiritual entities broke into countless spiritual fragments, and
fell downwards, as per the will of God.
According to Kabbalah, these 'broken pieces' fell together with a
Divinely-designated amount of Holy Sparks, into what is referred to above
as 'Tohu,' one of the four levels of spiritual impurity - levels of
existence that 'hide' the reality of God - mentioned by the Zohar. The
other three levels are referred to by the terms 'Void' (Vohu), 'Darkness'
(Choshech), and 'Deep' (Tehohm).
All the Sparks and Broken Pieces became mixed together with all the early
roots that were [very small] like the "horns of grasshoppers," absorbed
into the Depths of Tohu. This is alluded to by the posuk, "The wicked
surround the righteous" (Chavakuk 1:4). (Sefer Drushei Olam HaTohu, Maimar
Thus, according to the Zohar, the 'earth' of the posuk about tohu does not
refer to the physical earth of creation, but it is a reference to a
spiritual entity that 'died,' 'broke,' and fell into the World of Tohu
prior to creation, together with the Sparks (Nitzutzei Kedoshim) that God
ordained to fall with the 'Broken Pieces' (Shivrei Keilim). Thus, the
posuk about Tohu is, in fact, a description of the pre-creation state of
existence - a dark spiritual reality within which lay the future building
blocks of creation (Shivrei Keilim) and the Sparks (Nitzutzei Kedoshim)
necessary to bring them to life.
Over this spiritual swamp, if you will, the 'Spirit of God' hovered, as the
moment in time approached to bring into existence 'Ma'aseh Bereishis' - the
'Work of Creation' - described by the words:
In the Beginning, God made Heaven and Earth.
Thus began the extremely holy process of Birrur - Separation - the basis of
constructing Ma'aseh Bereishis and everything in it:
However, after all of this, The Holy One, Blessed is He . . . emanated His
great light, as it says, "God said, 'Let there be light!'" (Bereishis 1:3),
which shone from one end of the world until the other . . . This is the
'Ohr HaGanuz' (Hidden Light) which God will reveal in the
Future-to-Come. When it says, "God saw the light, that it was good" (Ibid.
4), it means that this light elevated and drew out the Sparks and Broken
Pieces from the Depths of Tohu, eliminating a large amount of spiritual
impurity and evil intrinsic to the World of Tohu . . . resulting in
creation. However, only the amount necessary for Ma'aseh Bereishis up
until the creation of Adam HaRishon was rectified . . . [a portion]
remained [in Tohu] to be rectified (i.e., elevated) through [the actions
of] Adam HaRishon. (Sefer Drushei Olam HaTohu, Maimar HaKlalli, 4)
Like a lamp that was smashed into little pieces, and then re-built,
creation was the result of God's recovering of the Broken Pieces from the
depths of the Tohu, and assembling them into what we call 'Existence.' As
He drew out the pieces, He deemed necessary to craft creation, He extracted
with them the appropriate Sparks intended to be the 'soul' of creation,
that which gave life to - and continues to give life to - all that exists.
Day after day, God, the Master builder that He is, shone His holy supernal
light down onto the Depths of Tohu, and drew out more Broken Pieces and
Holy Sparks, precisely what He needed at that moment in time to create what
He willed to exist at that precise second, nothing more, and nothing
less. The Sefiros, the physical universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Solar
System, Planet Earth, the waters, land, vegetation, animals, etc., all the
way until the creation of man himself.
Then God stopped. He halted the process after the creation of man, leaving
behind Holy Sparks in the Depths of Tohu, and said to man,
"You draw them out. You cleanse the remaining Sparks from their encasement
of spiritual impurity. You rectify them and bring creation to perfection,
bringing to fulfillment My will for all that has been done until now,
thereby earning all of your eternal reward in the World-to-Come."
But where were the Sparks to be found to be drawn out and rectified? How
was Adam HaRishon expected to continue the process that God had begun and
almost completed before creation? What act could he have done to comply
with God's expectation?
The answer, of course, was to abstain from eating from the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil for three hours. The Aitz HaDa'as Tov v'Rah had
been the only remaining physical embodiment of anything left over from the
World of Tohu. By obeying God's commandment not to eat from the Tree, Adam
would have drawn down the Ohr HaGanuz, which would have elevated the
remaining Sparks and Broken Pieces from the Tohu, obliterating every last
trace of it forever:
Had he not stumbled in the sin of the Aitz HaDa'as, he would have drawn
down, through his actions, the Original Light of creation to the very
bottom, completely eradicating the Encrustations (K'lipos) of 'Null,'
'Void,' and 'Darkness.' God would have illuminated the world so that night
became like day . . . (Sefer Drushei Olam HaTohu, Maimar HaKlalli, 4)
However, as history testifies, not only did Adam HaRishon NOT accomplish
this task, but:
After he stumbled in the sin of the Aitz HaDa'as, not only did he not
rectify [the remaining Sparks], but he did much damage to all of
creation. All the worlds descended from their places to much lower levels,
and evil increased, returned and became greater, 'staining' even the higher
levels . . . The Sparks and Broken Pieces from which [creation] was built
returned and descended to the Depths of Tohu. (Sefer Drushei Olam HaTohu,
Maimar HaKlalli, 4)
In other words, Gan Aiden disappeared because the spiritual and physical
worlds were lowered from their holy positions, as a result of Adam's
decision, resulting in the post-Garden reality with which we are quite
familiar. The world in which we live, which supports evil as well as good,
is one that exists in the reality of 'Tohu.' This is the reason for all
that turns evil within creation, and why "The inclination of a man's heart
is evil from his youth." (Bereishis 8:21)