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The Gift

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Rabbi Akiva would say… All is foreseen, choice is granted, and the world is judged in kindness.

Ethics of the Fathers 3:15

These three points, expressed by Rabbi Akiva in one sentence, are interconnected.

The statement, “All is foreseen,” raises two questions. The most basic truth about G-d is that He is omnipotent: infinite, all-knowing, present and active in every point of time and space even as He transcends these parameters. But if such is the case, can man’s actions be the product of his independent choice? It’s not just a question of “If G-d knows what I’m going to do, how could I have chosen?”; the more basic problem is: “If G-d’s knowledge of the future is the product of His all-pervading and exclusive power, how can I possess any power that is not utterly subservient to His?”[1]

Yet the principle of free choice is basic to our very definition as moral beings. In the words of Maimonides, if man’s actions were not freely chosen:

“How could G‑d command us through the prophets ‘Do this’ and ‘Do not do this,’ ‘Improve your ways’ and ‘Do not follow your wickedness’…? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous…?”[2]

How is this to be reconciled with the equally axiomatic principle of G-d’s omnipotence?

The second question raised by the statement “All is foreseen” is: if man is constantly under the scrutiny of G-d, how can he possibly maintain the standard of behavior that this demands? The Talmud says that to make a single superfluous gesture in the presence of a king is a capital offense.[3] If we are perpetually in the presence of the King of all kings, who is the man that might be found righteous before His exacting judgment?

It is to address these two questions that Rabbi Akiva adds:

“Choice is granted, and the world is judged in kindness.”

In answer to the first question, he says: “Choice is granted.” Indeed, man cannot possess any power or volition that is independent of G-d’s. But man does not intrinsically possess the capacity to freely determine his actions; rather, freedom of choice has been granted to man. G-d, who can do whatever He chooses, has given man a capacity that, in essence, belongs to Him alone.

To answer the second question, Rabbi Akiva says: “The world is judged in kindness.” It is true, in the words of the Alter Rebbe, that:

“G-d stands over [man], and the entire world is filled with His presence; He looks upon him, and searches his reins and heart, to see if he is serving Him as is fitting.”[4]

But it is also true according to Midrash that:

“G-d first wanted to create the world with the attribute of judgment, He saw that the world could not survive it; so He combined [the attribute of judgment] with the attribute of mercy”[5]

G-d also says:

“I do not demand of [My creatures] according to My capacity, but according to their capacity.”[6]

A person is always in the presence of G-d, at all times subject to the divine scrutiny and judgment; but this is a scrutiny sensitive to his limitations and vulnerabilities, a judgment tempered with empathy and kindness.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Parshat Emor 5738 (May 20, 1978); Sivan 23, 5740 (June 7, 1980)[7]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

 


[1]. The question, “If G-d knows what I’m going to do, how could I have chosen?” is more a difficulty of our time-contexted perception than a true logical paradox. If a fortune-teller should know what you will do tomorrow, does this mean that your actions are compelled by his knowledge? Obviously not: the hypothetical fortune-teller merely “sees” into the future and observes the result of your choice; his knowledge derives from your freely-chosen actions, not the other way around. By the same token, if G-d’s knowledge of the future were to stem from His ability to “see” into the future, this would in no way affect man’s freedom of choice. The paradox of divine foreknowledge and human choice is that G-d’s knowledge of the future is not the product of future events, but a feature of His all-pervasive reality. Nothing exists outside of G-d; He is the cause of all, and nothing outside of Him is the cause for anything in Him. (This is implicit in G-d’s infinity: a truly infinite being must be all-inclusive, since the existence of anything outside of it would imply that there is a boundary beyond which its reality does not extend.) He knows things not because they happen, but because they derive from Him. Hence the question: how does such knowledge of human affairs allow for any choice on the part of man?

[2]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 5:1.

[3]. Chagigah 5b.

[4]. Tanya, ch. 41.

[5]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 12:15.

[6]. Ibid., Bamidbar 3:13.

[7]. Biurim L’Pirkei Avot (Kehot 1996), p. 175.

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