Understanding Man's Free Will: A Chess Analogy

In parshas Netzavim (30:15), the Torah states that Hashem set forth choices before the Jewish people, "et ha'chayim v'et ha'tov; v'et hamavet v'et hara - "life and good; and death and evil." Thereafter, in 30:19, the Jewish people are commanded, "u'bacharta ba'chayim - choose life." Rashi comments that Hashem is instructing what is good, and advising the Jewish people to choose it much as a father might tell his son to choose the finest portions of his estate and then points out which those fine parts are.

These verses reflect the concept of "free will" - that is, the Torah is a guide to what is good and what is wrong, but it is up to man to choose the good, and reject the evil.

There is an interesting discussion in gemara Sotah (2a), that elaborates on the concept of free will. The gemara states that a man is paired with a wife based on his deeds. Rashi explains that a righteous man is paired with a righteous woman; while a wicked man is paired with a wicked woman. The gemara then questions this statement as it is written elsewhere that forty days before the formation of a male embryo (see Tosafos), a heavenly voice proclaims, that the daughter of so-and-so shall be married to this male.

As Rashi explains the question: How can the gemara state that shidduchim are based on an individual's merits when another source states that a man's shidduch is determined even before it is known whether he will be good or evil (i.e., at conception). Rashi suggests that perhaps one can answer that Hashem knows the future, and therefore knows in advance that such-and-such person will be good or evil.  Thus, there is no contradiction. But Rashi then dismisses that argument with another dictum holding "hakol bi'yedei shamayim chutz mi'yirat shamayim - everything is in the Hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven." In other words, notwithstanding that Hashem is All Knowing, it is man who chooses to be good or evil - i.e., man has free will.

As proof of Man's free will, Rashi cites a gemara in Niddah that the angel responsible for conception asks Hashem concerning each embryo whether the future child will be strong or weak; wise or dumb; rich or poor - that is, the angel asks Hashem to declare the circumstances of the man's life. But, as Rashi notes, the angel does NOT ask whether the man will be righteous or wicked - since that is Man's choice - to take the circumstances decreed for him and choose the path of good or the path of evil.

Thus, the gemara's question remains valid: how can one source state that shidduchim are based on merit while another source states shidduchim are determined before a man's merits are known (the gemara responds that one source refers to a first marriage, while the second source refers to a remarriage).

Rashi's statements thus raise a conundrum. On the one hand, if Hashem knows the future, then it seems man's actions are preordained. Yet, at the same time, Rashi states emphatically that man has free will to choose between good and evil, and only the circumstances of his life, not his moral actions, are preordained.

Is there a solution to this riddle?

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Atem-Emet: The Endurance of the Jewish People as Proof for G-d's Existence

Rashi on the very first pasuk in Nitzavim (29:9) writes that the intent of Moshe's statement "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem - You are standing here today, all of you, before Hashem, Your G-d" - was to reassure Bnei Yisroel. After hearing the curses of last week's parsha, Bnei Yisroel turned white and feared for their survival - "how is it possible for us to withstand such curses?" To which Moshe responded "Atem nitzavim" - you are still standing. That is, you committed sins that angered Hashem, and yet He did not destroy you. Therefore, your standing here before Hashem today should reassure you that you will withstand the curses, and survive.

In a dvar Torah I heard from Rabbi Yehuda Tucker (who heard it in a broadcast shiur given by Rabbi Yissochar Frand), it was brought down in the name of the Chatam Sofer that the word "Atem" (Alef Tof Mem) - the Hebrew plural "you" - appears as the first word in a pasuk only 4 times in the entire Tanach (grab a concordance to prove this to yourself). Interesting trivia? Hardly. As we shall see, the context of those 4 pasukim is extremely intriguing, and ultimately alludes to one of the fundamental proofs for G-d's existence.

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