The Duties of the Heart
Gate Three: "Serving G-d"
We turn now to the nearly unfathomable subject of freewill vs. Divine
compulsion. The operative question behind the issue at this point of our
discussion is this: if we're compelled to do whatever G-d would have us do
(as some suggest), then how could we be said to actually *serve* Him as we're
supposed to do? Wouldn't we merely be playing out roles He'd assigned for us
from the first -- and ones that could have absolutely nothing to do with
personal choice and growth? How could we possibly achieve spiritual
excellence if that were the case? So let's delve into that now.
There seems to be a conflict in the tradition itself about just how free we
are to do as we will. We're taught that "G-d does whatever He wants to do in
Heaven and on earth" (Psalms 135:6), that "G-d brings to death and He brings
to life; He sends down to the netherworld and He brings up from it. G-d makes
people poor, and He makes them rich, He lowers them and raises them up" (I
Samuel 2:6-7), G-d Himself says "I fashion light and create darkness; I make
peace and create evil" (Isaiah 45:7), it's stated outright that "unless G-d
decides to build a house, those who build it work in vain; unless G-d decides
to watch over the city, the watchman wakes in vain" (Psalms 127:1), and the
In fact, if G-d is indeed All-knowing and All-powerful, how could we ever
hope to have free will or even imagine doing anything that might go against
His own will? It's almost as if all we were ever meant to do was to embellish
the world and follow orders left and right -- like interesting, talented,
enchanting slaves. (The more positive side to that, of course, is the
enthralling realization which the Kabbalists are granted that G-d is
immanently and palpably present in the world, and cannot be denied.)
Yet, we're also depicted as being free, at liberty to make our own choices,
and the masters of our fate. As when we're told, "See, I (G-d) have set
before you today life and good, or death and evil ... therefore *choose
life*" (Deuteronomy 30:15,19), and that it's "a man's own foolishness that
makes his way crooked" (Proverbs 19:3), and the like. The fact that we're
bidden to do certain things and avoid others within the mitzvah-system that
we'll have to answer for in the end also seems to indicate that we're free to
make our own decisions.
So how do we reconcile the two perspectives? Indeed, our Sages themselves
were of two minds -- or more!-- when it came to the whole subject. Some
things are clear, though. As Ibn Pakudah points out, "there seem to be times
when we can actually accomplish what we set out to, and times when we can't.
What that teaches us is that G-d reigns over us indeed, ... and that He
allows the things He Himself favors to come about, and forbids things He
doesn't favor to come about."
But as Ibn Pakudah also says, "our ignorance of G-d's ways is well known and
based on the weaknesses of our minds and the limitations of our
understanding", so it would be wise of us not to delve too deeply into the
The best advice Ibn Pakudah could offer is that we "act like those who hold
that we act on our own, and are rewarded or punished for our deeds... But
also trust G-d as much as those to whom it's clear that all deeds, movements,
and either good and bad fortune comes about by Divine decree" which is always
rooted in G-d's love and justice.
After all, as the greatest scientists will themselves affirm, we really know
very, very little about the mysteries of nature, and about the roots and
consequences of things, as well as their true makeup. Thus, "someone as
ignorant as we about the things we handle all the time" Ibn Pakudah
concludes, "is obviously never going to become aware of G-d's ways..., or of
the righteousness of His judgments which are infinitely more hidden and
exalted than such things."
The person of faith and humility couldn't help but agree, and would put his
or her trust in the One G-d. (Let it also be noted that more will be said
about this dilemma at a later point in the work, though.)
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