The Challenge of Free Will: comments on a Dvar Torah

I read the following Dvar Torah this past weekend on Bereishit.  It spoke about the first instance of free will, as in the Kayin having a choice to either go down the dark side or come to an understanding regarding the acceptance of his brother’s sacrifice over his.  As I was reading this, I was struck by a couple of problems with Rabbi Bieler’s approach which I want to share. 

1.  He implies that there was no free will before the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  To be more specific, the argument is that by G-d telling Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he was placing an ultimatum but not actually presenting a choice.  Of course, if we think about it, all commands have choice.  If Adam chooses to ignore the command, there will be a consequence, which G-d spells out.  When Kayin is presented with a choice, he is not given a direct consequence, so much as G-d presents the two roads Kayin can travel depending on his choice (“If you do well, you will be uplifted.  And if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door, and to you shall be its desire. Yet you can rule over it.”)

2.  The dvar Torah implies that G-d made a mistake the first time by placing an ultimatum on Adam as opposed to laying out the options before him.  As such, when we get to Kayin, G-d fixes the mistake.  To me, that seems to be the polar opposite of how the creation story is to be read.  Adam and Eve live in a Utopian world.  G-d, being the all knowing, perfect, etc. would presumably know the proper approach to take regarding the prohibition of eating from the Tree.  He, however, assumes that G-d’s approach with Adam was wrong, because he disobeyed, and therefore G-d needs to rectify the mistake when the next potential sin could come by offering a concrete psychological choice. 

3.  The message is quite interesting.  The first born is not automatically removed from the seen in favor of the younger child.  Rather, the first born often fails to reach the expectations placed on him/her by the parents.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the comments on the Dvar Tora for Beraishit.
    1. I never stated that Adam and Chava did not have free choice when confronted with the Commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The question was the manner in which the Commandment and the implications of compliance and non-compliance was presented. Whereas Adam and Chava were made aware only of the negative consequence that would result from violating the Commandment, Kayin had the benefit of an overall explanation of the temptations that would beset an individual and his ability to overcome such tests if only he applies himself to do so. The same verse could just have easily been presented to Adam and Chava, but was not. Consequently, I suggested that this reflected an adjustment in God’s Approach to mankind vis-a-vis the “normative gesture” as R. Soloveitchik refers to Divine Commandments in “Confrontation.” A more global adjustment could be God initially Giving man a single Commandment, followed by an increase in Commansments to Noach after the Flood, still more Commandments to Avraham over the course of his life, and then ultimately the total system of law revealed at Sinai. It would appear that initially, God Wished man to come to recognize what was required of him on his own, a form of “Discovery Learning,” perhaps epitomized by the Rabbinic tradition that the Avot fulfilled all of the Mitzvot of the Tora, without the benefit of Revelation. However, as a result of carefully Weighing the empirical results of man in general acting upon his free choice, over time, less and less was left to man’s deductive powers and imagination, and more and more was spelled out via various Revelations.
    2. If we assume that man is given absolute free choice by God–Meshech Chachma defines the quality of “Tzelem Elokim” as this absolute free choice, for which God “Contracts” his omniscience in order to make room for man to be truly free in his choices–then He must Respond to how man acts, rather than “Knowing” beforehand how best to encourage and motivate man to make the right choices. I am merely suggesting that the two approaches to presenting Mitzva observance and its challenges reflect an ongoing “taking man’s measure,” part of which is the Flood, the generation of the Dispersion, the choosing of the Jewish people as exemplars to the rest of humanity with regard to living a holy lifestyle, etc.
    3. The stories in the Bible are definitely sensitive to birth order. Parental expectations lead to personal self-expectations, with the resulting frustration and disappointment often leading to negative behavior. In Rabbinic literature, the story of Shimi and Chonyo, the sons of Shimon HaTzaddik in Menachot 109b, is a powerful cautionary tale in this regard.

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