The four words attributed to Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): הכול צפוי והרשות נתונה (all is known and the choice is granted) seem illogical, an illusion and a non-sequitur.
If God knows the future, how can there be free choice?
Let’s examine this conundrum. We can’t solve it, but maybe we can begin to understand its intent.
Let’s examine a choice in this week’s Parasha – Lech Lecha. To resolve the conflict between their shepherds, Avraham asks Lot to choose – If you go to the right, I will go leftward, if you go to the left I will go rightward. In the story, Lot only looks one way, and seeing the beautiful Jordan Valley below him, never even bothers to look the other way. He “chooses”. Rashi quotes from Midrash Rabbah that Lot was like a man “chasing after his mother’s dowry” – he runs after the familiar, the sure thing. He stays within his “comfort zone”. It is a choice of sorts – but he stays well within the box.
We are now in a political season, with elections in Israel and the U.S. Research shows that political choices – how we vote, left or right, are most often driven by our proclivities and personalities, both inborn and learned. Despite the universal democratic right to choose, most of us are like Lot, and usually only a small minority will seriously consider crossing political lines.
The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker points out that our senses are adapted to see and hear and smell within a limited range, because if he saw and heard and smelled everything, early man would have been unable to function in his environment, to discern dangers, to satisfy basic needs. The development of the human brain expanded our evolutionary capacity, but within limits. We may have choices, but only within the range determined by our senses.
Similarly, the cultures that we grow up in, our immediate environment, play the key role in determining the range of our choices. They create within us a set of preferences based on language, aesthetics and values. They teach us how to survive and thrive in our environment by limiting our choices. As the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky stated, “a man is nothing but the shape of his native landscape”.
Education can prepare us to make better choices, technology can provide tools for analyzing alternatives — but still only within a limited range. The alternatives offered are normally quite familiar to us.
It is when the spectrum of choice widens to the point where it yields paradoxes, that even our best judgment may not help in reaching a sound decision. We tend to fall back on our faith or on our native proclivities.
In next week’s Parsaha, Avraham must choose either to follow God’s command to kill the son who is the embodiment of God’s promise to him, or rebel against the God he has brought to the world, in order to save him. The alternatives are so extreme, so outside of experience, that choice becomes a paradox. Avraham is forced to fall back on his faith and to surrender to God’s will.
I think that the key to understanding Avraham’s choice in the Akeda story is found in this week’s Parasha, in a verse that is startling, both for its clarity and for its ambiguity וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּו צְדָקָה. Does the sentence mean (as Rashi taught) that God rewarded Avraham for his faith, or (as per Ramban), that Avraham’s believed that God would act justly? The first reading promises a reward for following God regardless of the horrific implication, while the latter teaches that faith is itself a choice based on the understanding that God will, in the end, deliver justice.
Shavua Tov from Schechter!
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.
Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.