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Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Do You Believe in Free Will?

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and his brother Aaron are confronted with a revolt led by Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi. Korach and his followers challenge Moses’ authority, questioning his position as their leader: “Why do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] they vehemently argue. But Moses isn’t moved by their accusations. He retorts that they should leave it to God to choose the one to lead the people. Preparations are made for the next morning’s showdown. Then, as God is about to unleash His wrath upon the rebels, Moses declares: “By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising.” [Num. 16:28]

This declaration left me perplexed. On one hand Moses was negating his role as a leader seemingly saying that anyone could have done what he did since he only obeyed God’s orders. One the other hand, he was painting a pretty deterministic picture of his life, thus abdicating all personal responsibility as a leader. In both cases he was justifying Korach’s accusation. This came on the heels of a conversation I was having with one of my B’nai Mitzvah students. We talked about Joseph (back in the Book of Exodus) telling his brothers that they had sold him into slavery as part of God’s plan to ultimately place him in command of Egypt so that he could save their lives from the impending famine. My student was arguing against this sense of inescapable destiny, claiming that it removed the responsibility for our actions from us.

He raised a critical question. Do we, or do we not believe in determinism? Our first reaction is “of course not!” We are rational beings, educated modern thinkers, and we cannot conceive of anything being predetermined. After all, that wouldn’t leave room for freedom, would it? Or for meaning. Nor, like my student pointed out, for personal responsibility or accountability. Our entire legal system would be in jeopardy. That being said, how often do we catch ourselves saying “Oh, it was meant to be,” or “things happen for a reason;” sayings that suggest a deterministic line of thinking? So which is it? Does everything happen for a reason, or is everything totally random? In truth, there are competing answers in our tradition as well. Even though our rabbis insist on “free will” being the very cornerstone of Judaism, God doesn’t make much room for it in Torah. Moses is right, “it was the Eternal who sent [him] to do all these things.” Moses didn’t even want to go! God performed all the miracles, sent all the plagues. Moses repeated God’s teachings and performed God’s commands.

Except once. Once — in next week’s Torah portion — Moses loses his composure. Once, he becomes so angry at the Israelites’ never-ending complaints that, contrary to God’s explicit orders to tell a rock to yield water, Moses hits the rock with his staff in anger instead. That moment of apparent free will, that moment of disobedience, where his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, overtook him, caused Moses to be punished by God. He was to die before entering the Promised Land. Is this one moment of disobedience enough to restore our belief in free will? I cannot tell you what my answer would be, for the process of Torah study is about wrestling with the question and for you to come up with your own answer… or with the answer that God had already seeded in your soul.