Do We Really Have a Choice At All?
Shabbat Shalom! Shanah tovah!
Let’s consider this quote from Morgan Freeman:
“I knew at an early age I wanted to act.
Acting was always easy for me.
I don’t believe in predestination,
but I do believe that once you get where ever it is you are going,
that is where you were going to be.
Was I always going to be here?
No I was not. I was going to be homeless at one time,
a taxi driver, truck driver,
or any kind of job that would get me a crust of bread.
You never know what’s going to happen.”
Is Morgan Freeman right? I mean, he did play “God” in the movie, Bruce Almighty, so some part of me really wants to believe him. Do we never know what is going to happen? Or are our lives all set into motion at the very beginning of the story, and we are just carried passively along?
In many parts of the Bible, this almost seems to be the case: we see the hand of God present not only in miraculous interventions, but also in the everyday lives of our ancestors.
Throughout the month of Elul, I’ve warmly encouraged you to ready yourselves for the soul-searching work of the High Holy Days. And last night, we began actively pondering the transformative power of this season. And this morning, we consider another layer – Do we ACTUALLY HAVE choice? Do we have free will?
Predictably, the Tanach does not deal with this issue uniformly. On one hand, it states in Deuteronomy, in a portion we read on Yom Kippur, “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live…” But on the other hand, the Bible maintains in the Book of Proverbs that “many designs are in a person’s mind, but it is God’s plan that is accomplished.”
This has been a central concern for centuries of Jewish thinkers. Rabbi Akiva taught, in the 3rd century text, Pirkei Avot, a paradox: “All is foreseen, yet [free] choice is given.”
13th century theologian, Gersonides, believed that we have some freedom because God has foresight only of things in general.
14th century Jewish philosopher, Chasdai Crescas,believed that all of a person’s actions are pre-determined at the moment of their birth, as is their judgment in the eyes of God, as good or evil. He believed there was no opportunity for repentance or redemption. So, um, dude, why have High Holy Days at all????
Maimonides, in the 12th century, offered yet another view by stating everything has a divine cause, and God is ultimately responsible for our actions. So when we think we are doing something freely, we don’t realize the workings of Divine providence, because they are unknowable to the human mind.
The question of free will becomes especially complicated when we get to this morning’s Torah portion, the Akedah, the story of the Binding of Isaac. The “free will thing” is part of what bothers us each year. Abraham comes so very close to killing his beloved son, Isaac, because of God’s command. One might wonder – did Abraham really have a choice? Why didn’t Abraham say, “Um, no, thanks,” to God? Did Abraham have independent, free will, at the moment of the command? What about Isaac? What about Isaac’s mother, Sarah? Or was the whole event Divine pre-destination?
The story is simply a sequence of events involving God and Abraham, with Isaac in a minor supporting role, and Sarah on the cutting room floor.
I’m relieved to say that some modern commentators have suggested a powerful, significant way that Sarah may have contributed to the Akedah, and they suggest that she exercised her free will at a critical moment in the plot. Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes write Midrashic Monologues in the voices of various Biblical characters, and this is their piece entitled “Where was Sarah During the Akedah?”
I remember lying quietly in our tent. Abraham had fallen asleep beside me. My mind drifted back to my favorite memory of the day when three guests came to tell me I’d soon be pregnant. After so many years! I actually laughed in disbelief until the Source of Life reassured me it was true. With Isaac, God gave me one of my life’s great joys.
Suddenly, Abraham began stirring and called out, ‘Hineini, Here I am.’ He began to talk with God. As I often did, I pretended to be asleep to listen in.
At first what I heard made little sense. Though I could only hear Abraham’s responses, I sensed that God requested something involving our son Isaac. Abraham’s steady voice suddenly quivered. I thought I heard him say the word, ‘sacrifice.’ Had the Eternal One just commanded that my husband sacrifice our only son?
Now why would God, who had given us Isaac, take this special gift from me now? And without even speaking directly to me! For a moment I wondered if this was my punishment for our treatment of Hagar.
Through cracked eyelids, I saw my husband overcome with sadness. I had never seen him so sad, not even when we were commanded, lech l’cha, ‘go forth,’ to leave his land and his father’s house
Strangely, I could see in Abraham’s face that he truly believed that God wanted him to sacrifice our son. I wanted to urge Abraham to challenge to God as he had before at Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham’s eyes burned fiercely and for the first time he excluded me from contemplating God’s message.
I felt powerless to insert myself in what had passed between them. Finally, Abraham fell back asleep, though fitfully as if struggling with a demon.
I would give up my life before I would let Isaac be harmed! ‘I would not offer my first born for sacrifice.’The Merciful One who had blessed us with a child would not now take him away.
I needed air. I stepped outside to think. I walked aimlessly around the camp’s altar and spied Abraham’s special knife. I trembled as I thought of that knife sliding against Isaac’s throat.
“What was God looking for? Why would God suddenly seek reassurance of our commitment? I remembered God’s promise that our offspring would inherit this land and become a great nation.I always assumed that Isaac and his future bride would follow in our footsteps to lead as heads of the tribe, but I never considered just how they would inherit our commitment to serving God. …
My heart began to pound as I realized Abraham had misunderstood. God was commanding an offering to help transmit leadership to Isaac. A sacrifice of the finest of our flocks was called for, not a sacrifice of Isaac. I realized then, that the future of our people depended upon me. I had to prevent a nonsensical death, and ensure our continued covenant with God. It was on me.
I hoped Abraham would figure this out himself. But in case he did not, I had to intervene. So I went back to bed and with my eyes closed, I planned my next step.
Abraham got up early, gathered his supplies, and took off with Isaac. He didn’t even try to wake me. No explanation; not even a kiss goodbye.
As soon as they were gone, I gathered my supplies and took our finest ram. I followed carefully, hiding in the shadows. At dawn on the third day, as they slept, I hurried up the mountain, releasing the ram into the bushes.
The rest happened so quickly. Abraham was holding the knife, about to sacrifice Isaac. He seemed to be in a trance. So in my voice that he often called ‘angelic,’ I called out, ‘Avraham, Avraham.’
That broke the trance. Realizing what he was about to do, he dropped the knife. He looked up, saw the ram that I brought for him to sacrifice instead, and stepped toward it. Relieved at having saved my son’s life, and grateful at having ensured the survival of our people, I was exhausted. I cried and cried.
Then I lay down on the ground for what I sensed would be a long, long sleep.
How will your actions affect the story?
Where will your choices transform the plot?
Dear friends, see the various choices set before you as we enter this new year, and understand the importance of every single one of those choices. The general timeline may be foreseen by God, yet we hold so much power in our hands to impact our own lives and the lives of those around us. Now is the time to promise ourselves that we will take our choices seriously, and that every action will be made with intention, compassion, and care. In no other year in our lifetimes has it been so clear that God sets before us life and death, blessing and curse. Let us all choose life, so that we all may live. Whatever that life-affirming choice is for each of us, we must make it for the betterment of all of us.
Ken Yhi Ratzon, may this be God’s, and OUR, will.
 (Deuteronomy 30:19)
 (Proverbs 19:21).
 (Pirkei Avot 3:15)
 Levi ben Gershon, 1288−1344
 Moses ben Maimon, 1138-1204
 Zohar on Gen. 12:5; Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, p. 27.
 ‘I Will Not Offer,’ Ra’aya Harnik in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
 Adapted from a modern midrash by Faith Rogow in Taking the Fruit, Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible
 Adapted from paulkipnes.com and ReformJudaism.org