Why did Hashem create the world in such a way that free will is so essential?
Nothing is more central to our preparations for Yom HaDin than increasing our awareness of our free will — as a prelude for strengthening our ability to exercise control over our desires. Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank in his superb work Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era, cites a fascinating experiment in which, prior to taking an exam, some students read an essay denying the existence of free will. Those who read the essay were more likely to cheat on the subsequent exam than a control group.
Conversely, Rav Dessler writes in Michtav MeEliyahu, the reason that so many today are attracted to deterministic doctrines that deny free will is that they have so little personal experience of overcoming their desires.
My Elul reading project is reviewing Rabbi Wiederblank's sefer. His nearly 300-page treatment of free will reflects a comprehensive mastery of the varying positions of the Rishonim and Acharonim on the major issues connected to free will, along with an ability to probe the difficulties in each position and to sharply define the differences between them. Without a trace of exaggeration, Rabbi Wiederblank's former rosh yeshivah in the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Rav Aaron Lopiansky, describes him as "Harav Hagaon."
He tackles the relevant issues: How did free will change with the sin of Adam? How can Hashem's foreknowledge of what will occur be reconciled with man's free will? What is the scope of free will? What does it mean that Hashem "hardened" Pharaoh's heart? In an important final section, he shows how far from the mark is the denial of free will by some scientists. Science, he writes, has not accounted for human consciousness — our essential "I" or neshamah — that weighs options and chooses between courses of action, and which cannot be reduced to the substance or structure of the physical brain.
Rav Saadiah Gaon points out that the entire Torah makes no sense without free will. Why enumerate the mitzvos if we have no power to decide whether to perform them or not? Where would be the justice in punishments for the non-fulfillment of mitzvos if we could not choose to perform the mitzvos or not? And the concept of teshuvah presupposes the ability to repent and change our course of action.
Yet still the question must be asked: Why did Hashem create the world in such a way that free will is so essential? Though the Divine mind is beyond our comprehension, there are two major answers offered for this question. That of the Ramchal is primarily based on logic. Since G-d is by definition complete unto Himself, without need for anything outside of Himself, why did He create the universe? The Ramchal answers that the entire Creation is an act of beneficence born precisely of the one thing Hashem could be described as "lacking" — the opportunity to give to another. That is the meaning of the verse, "ki olam chesed yibaneh — the world is founded on chesed."
And the ultimate good is closeness to Hashem in Olam Haba, which is the reward for the performance of the mitzvos in this world.
Ramban, however, stresses that the purpose of Creation was for Hashem's glory, as stated in Pirkei Avos (6:11), citing the verse, "All that is called by My Name and for My glory, I created it, formed it, also I made it" (Yeshayahu 43:7).
While the two perspectives appear to be far removed from each other, Rabbi Wiederblank offers a possible reconciliation. Hashem created the world in order to shower His benevolence on man, as the Ramchal writes. That is the Divine perspective. But from our perspective, our purpose is to glorify Hashem in this world and to acknowledge His handiwork in all of Creation, as the Ramban writes. Hashem does not "need" or "desire" our praises or even our mitzvos. The multiplicity of praises in our davening, for instance, are for our good, not His.
The Vilna Gaon offers precisely such a reconciliation. Were Hashem to simply reward us without any action on our part, then that reward would be "nehama d'kisufa, bread of shame" — i.e, unearned. The currency with which we earn His beneficence is by bringing honor to Him.
At a deeper level, the highest reward — dveikus with Hashem — would be impossible without an exercise of free will. Were we not choosing beings, nothing we did would become essential to us, and there would be nothing about us that reflects the Divine soul — the chelek Elokim mima'al (the breath of the Elokim) — that connects us with Hashem.
How precisely do we give honor to Hashem? At the most basic level, by performing His commandments. Those commandments are, inter alia, Hashem's means of shaping us into beings we are meant to be.
Second, by taking life seriously and treating our time as important. Rav Noah Weinberg defined yiras Shamayim as recognition that life is a serious business. And that requires constant awareness that we live in a world that Hashem created and for which He has a goal. We either advance His purposes or not, through every choice we make.
And finally, by emulating His ways. Ma Hu chanun v'rachum af atem. The more that we take Hashem's middos as our guide, the more G-d-like we become and the closer we can come to Hashem.
Reaching these lofty goals will require a lot more than Elul to examine how successful we are in overcoming our desires and to develop concrete plans to strengthen our ability to choose what is right over what is immediately pleasurable.
Acquiring Our Children
Many decades ago, I attended an excellent series of lectures on child raising by a veteran educator. Unfortunately, the only point that still remains with me is his advice to "koneh (acquire) our children with family vacations." He poignantly described his married children approaching the family car with tears of longing in their eyes, as their younger siblings prepared for a trip with their parents.
His point immediately resonated with me. Some of my clearest childhood memories are the Western car trips in our long three-seater station wagon — an earlier era's minivan, with five rambunctious boys fighting for space in the back with both seats put down.
Speaking to my mother, the materfamilias of the four generations of Rosenblums, who recently spent four days together in the Golan, I could still recall many of the details of those long-ago trips — e.g., the name of the city where my father a"h finally called it a day after driving across Illinois and Iowa: Kearney, Nebraska. And my children can similarly recall every summer venue over the past 30 years.
More recent summer vacations have become the highlight of the family calendar for both the sponsoring grandparents and their offspring. One seven-year-old granddaughter asked her mother, "Are you going to spoil us when we grow up, like Saba and Bubby do?"
I announced in advance of this year's vacation that apart from swimming laps in the beautiful pool, I would not budge from the house. I knew that Bubby would ably represent me on family hikes, and that I could in good conscience catch up on long-deferred reading.
Watching the sandwich generation put together every meal with perfect teamwork, while their children frolicked, drove home the message: "We are a family. My very different children and spouses look forward to being together." Not something to be taken for granted.
Why does that recognition bring such joy? Because it means that my wife and I succeeded in building our link in the chain: We will have a continuation. In truth, that continuation requires only one child, or even one person whose life one has influenced for the good. But a large family makes it more secure — a brand.
It turns out that the family vacation is as much for the grandparents as for their children and grandchildren.