By Rabbi Brian Zimmerman
Who is really in control? How much do our individual actions matter? Is the whole game rigged?
As we see another cycle of violence and destruction, rebirth and rebuilding, only to be followed by yet more tribalism and acts of violence, these questions take on great significance.
What role do our personal actions play in a larger cosmic drama that seems stuck in repeat mode?
The question comes to a head in this week’s Torah portion. Moses receives his marching orders from God.
God tells Moses and Aaron to “…speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But, I (God) will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:2-3, New Jewish Publication Society of America)
God instructs Moses to give Pharaoh a choice but it seems that God has already determined the outcome. God will make sure that Pharaoh does not let the Israelites leave so that all of Egypt can learn a hard lesson about what happens to those who ignore God’s will.
Do we have free will or are we predestined to repeat the same story over and over?
Do we live at the mercy and the whim of an all-knowing higher power or is there space for us to learn from our mistakes and alter the outcome of our lives.
This question troubles biblical commentators throughout the centuries.
Nachmanides (13th-century Spain), looking closely at the Hebrew used in each plague, suggests that Pharaoh choose to ignore the first plagues he saw and only in the later plagues had his heart actually hardened by God. Nachmanides suggests that Pharaoh, even after his own terrible deeds, still had the opportunity to change before God finally closed the door to repentance.
Ibn Ezra, also from Spain writing a century earlier, suggests that even if God had already chosen the punishment for Egypt, each person has within him or her the wisdom and intelligence to make God’s judgment less or more severe. In other words, even when it seems too late, human choice remains an option.
These commentators and many others raise a great challenge. The Torah constantly reminds us that God is fully in charge and knows the outcome but still awaits our choices. The whole premise of the giving of the Torah to Israel is that we have the power to choose our personal response to God’s call.
Predestination or free will?
The most beautiful and frustrating thing about Judaism is that it chooses to have it both ways.
The world seems to be stuck in a cycle of violence and rebirth. At times, we seem powerless to fight great forces beyond our control but we always have a choice to make.
Even when we feel most powerless, we are reminded that we can choose an act of kindness (chesed), a deed that eases some pain for another, and that deed can tip the scales for one soul and ease suffering even if the final result seems the same to our own eyes.
There is a plan bigger than ourselves and we are still in charge.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Beth-El Congregation, Fort Worth.