Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have a question about Cain and Abel. If God knows everything, which we believe He does, then He knew that Cain would kill his brother. But He let it happen. I know this question has so many examples. I’m aware of the “free will” aspect that we humans have. So then, because we have free will and G-d knows everything, He lets these things happen for reasons that we humans cannot understand. Is this correct or…?
You are correct that G-d, who is all-knowing, allows us to exercise our free will even to carry out actions which are contrary to His desire. This is despite His knowing that these actions will transpire even before they are committed.
Free will is a necessary component in the makeup of a being which was created “in the image of G-d.” Just as G-d has the ability to do whatever He wants, unconstrained by anything to limit His choice, so too must man have such freedom of choice if he is meant to be in that image.
There is, however, a major difference. Man is, at times, only given the appearance of free choice in situations where the outcome of what he chooses goes contrary to G-d’s master plan. For example, consider an attempted murder of an innocent person. At times the attempt is successful, sometimes not. What does it depend on, if G-d would allow the gun to fire or cause it to misfire?
King David prayed that he should be punished only by G-d for his misdeeds, not by mortal man. What is the difference? The distinction is in the way the punishment is meted out. Let’s say a person has accumulated enough negatives in his account to merit the dropping of a 50-pound boulder on his head. It can be dropped in two ways: either an entire boulder dropped at one time or numerous pebbles over a long period of time. It’s the same 50 pounds — he’s getting all that’s coming to him. But the first way, exacted with strict judgment, will mean his immediate end. The second way, paid out with kindness, may be painful but can be endured. King David was praying that whatever might be coming to him should come only through G-d, who would deliver the payload with kindness in a way that he could tolerate.
If a man chooses to go after his victim, G-d might allow that man to succeed in his attempt to kill him, as his free choice will not be limited, and, after all, the victim has the whole boulder in his account. If a gun is fired at him, G-d wouldn’t cause it to misfire if all the person is doing is, unknowingly, drawing on the victim’s account and meting out the judgment in an unkind way, different than the way G-d would have paid it out if He had delivered it over time.
In the situation where the gun is caused to misfire, the attempted murderer still gets the negative points for his choice and effort to commit the murder. This addresses a larger question: Does G-d’s knowledge of the future limit our free choice? The answer is, it does not; we are not judged by the outcome of our actions, rather the choice and the struggle to do or not do the right and wrong things. Only our choices of what to attempt to do and not do are in our hands, not the end results of those choices.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,