Free Will and Environment

I noticed a result of combining two previous divrei Torah. Before reading the following, see Bemachashavah Techilah for parshiyos Bo and Beshalach. In the first, I explore the question of Hashem making it impossible for Par’oh to change his mind. Isn’t that a violation of Par’oh’s free will? I elaborate on the Sefornu’s answer that in truth, Par’oh’s witnessing miracles was a supernatural intervention that would have influenced his decision. Hashem’s preventing Par’oh from remaking his decisions based on that evidence actually preserved his free will from such supernatural intervention. This is why the Torah’s shift from saying that Par’oh immobilized his own heart to saying that Hashem did it was with makas shechin (boils), the plague that made his magicians “unable to stand before Par’oh”. At that point he no longer had a balance between miracle and magic, and miracle could unduly influence him.On parashas Beshalach I presented the Maharal’s view, that miracles in fact could occur all the time — if we were on the level to observe them. And so for Yehushua and the Jewish people, the sun stood still; but for the rest of the world, nature ran its course. Rav Dessler explains this idea further. Someone who lives a more physical lifestyle sees the laws of physics as absolute. And the higher law, involving notions of justice, oppression, right, wrong, etc… seems more relative. However, to someone who lives his life focusing on the higher plane, the laws of nature seem relative, and the higher law becomes absolute. That’s how the same liquid could be water and blood simultaneously; physical reality became a relative thing. To Rav Dessler, this is an extension of the idea that when a shoemaker walks down the street, he sees a see of shoes; when a tailor walks down the same steet, he all he sees is clothing. People see what they’re attuned to see — even nature vs. miracle.

However, I noticed since writing those divrei Torah that in fact the plagues were a reversal of this order. The righteous experienced nature, to them water remained water, but the baser community, the Egyptians, experienced its miraculous transformation into blood. This observation is not made by Rav Dessler, and this is not Rav Dessler’s resolution of the question of Par’ohs free will. But it would seem to me that perhaps this is why the plagues in particular would be a violation of free will.

Psychologists debate the roles of nature vs. nurture in forming human nature. But by focusing on this debate, one is looking at the initial formation of personality, how a person is shaped before they take the reins of their own life. People have free will; they have the power to shape themselves.

Often people have little control over the world around them and what happens to them. In fact, the primary choice people have is how they choose to react internally to a situation, the choice of how they perceive what’s happening.

Usually, the only person who witnesses a miracle is seeing the world though his own perspective. The miracle only proves the perspective he himself brings to the world. “In the path that a person wants to go, that’s the way they take him.” This wasn’t true of the makkos. But this is not only true of most miracles; this is true of all the events we witness in our own lives. Our lives may be determined by our environment, but what elements of our environment come to the forefront and which remain in the background lies within our choice.

Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation

(You might want to see also Different Approaches to Creation, a survey that just touches on a variety of opinions, as well as Divine Timelessness.)
I think that in order to understand Rav Dessler’s position about the nature of time during ma’aseh bereishis one needs to start with MmE vol II pp 150-154, aptly titled “Yemei Bereishis veYemai Olam“. Comments of my own that I feel can’t wait for the end of the maamar are in square brackets.
Rav Dessler opens by defining the nature of time-as-we-know-it. In the first two paragraph he establishes the connection between time and free will. The flow of past to future is that of desire to fulfillment.In the section “Havchanas haZeman“, Rav Dessler points out that time passes as a function of the number of experiences we have. When we have more experiences, we have more opportunities for choice, for fulfilling desires.

But while man’s choice now revolves around many issues, Adam qodem hacheit [AQH] had only one choice, and therefore didn’t have the same connection to the flow of time. [pg. 151] We can not understand what time was like to AQH.

The next section is “Zeman Sheishes Yemei Bereishis“. It opens with the assertion that since the 6 days of bereishis were before the completion of creation, the havchanas hazeman was different. The six days are “diberah Torah kelashon benei adam” (the Torah talks like the language of people), that the Torah’s discussion of ma’aseh bereishis (the act of creation) is like explaining something to a blind person by drawing parallels to touch.

[Does that qualify as justifying allegorization of the narrative altogether? His phrase is "bederekh dimyon" (in the manner of comparison). But at least with regard to time, Rav Dessler is saying the Torah's terminology is one of dimyon, not literalness.]

Rav Dessler quotes the Ramban (1:3) who explains that the 6 days were literal days of hours and minutes, and also the 6 sephiros from Chesed to Hod. According to Rav Dessler this means that to our perception it would be 6 literal days, but the core of the issue is that of 6 sephiros. The Bahir says that this is why the pasuq says “ki sheishes yamim” — through these 6 days, 6 sephiros — “asah H’ es hashamayim ve’es ha’aretz…” – Hashem made the heaven and the earth….

[Sidenote: The Rambam also identifies the days of creation with steps of unfolding creation, rather than a measure of time. See this entry.]

[pg 152] Rav Dessler again quotes the Ramban (this time, 2:3) who draws parallels between the 6 days and the subsequent 6 millennia. The Ramban sometimes says that one is “romeiz” (hints at) the other, sometimes “kenegdo” (corresponding to it), and sometimes the actual identification — that the day “hu” (it is) the millennium. From this Rav Dessler concludes that the Ramban identifies the two — the current millennium is the same thing as the Friday of creation, which seems to us to be a hint to it, or corresponding to it.

The Gra identifies the 6 days with the subsequent 6 millenia, and [pg 153] had Adam not eaten from the eitz, the world would have only lasted those 6 days, and the first Shabbos would have been olam haba. And in the end of days everything will return to their maqor. And (emph Rav Dessler’s or Rav Aryeh Carmell’s) “the present is this time, which is knowledge of good and evil.” Rav Dessler understands the Gra to mean that the six millenia we’re living through is a post-sin perception, it is entirely a product of our knowledge of good and evil.

The last section “Zeman: Qevi’as Mahuso” (Time: Establishing His Nature) takes it’s name from the nature of the person. With each moment and each impression, some of the potential of the person is actualized. People think of themselves as stable, and the world moves around them. But this is an error.

It says in Nidah 30b that a baby before birth sees “from the end of the world until its [other] end”. But when he’s born, he enters the hiding caused by time, the unity of creation speaking the Unity of the Creator is concealed, and only the present seems real. In the world of action (olam ha’asiyah), every moment is fixed by the action. [pg 154] Every moment following the Torah adds some light to his mahus, and similarly ch”v in the reverse. Through his free will [thus connecting this definition of the time to the one in the opening of the lecture] he establishes his nature, thereby giving a flow to time.

Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. After death, the paper is removed, and one can see the entirety — not a progression.

Hashem is the One Who “looks until the end of generations” because He can see the whole. Rav Dessler closes with an exhortation to learn Torah, do mitzvos, cling to the truth, to rise beyond seeing the world through a little hole in the paper.


Some more of my own thoughts:
Rav Dessler holds that time-as-we-know-it flows, time-as-AQH-knew-it barely flowed, and time before AQH didn’t flow at all. Because the concept of a flow from past to future is so central to what people think of when they read the word “time”, I think it’s fair to say that time didn’t exist during the act of creation, only something more like “Time” (capitalized in the style of Platonic ideal, but in quotes) or “block time”.
Why “block time”? It’s Paul Davies’ term. Davies is a philosopher in Australia who published some popular books on science and philosophy. one of them titled “Time’s Arrow” about where the flow from past to future comes from. (He also has Scientific American article on the subject available on line.)
In relativity, the universe is not so much a 3D movie as a 4D sculpture. The flow of time isn’t inherent in relativity, and it’s difficult to explain why time is experienced so differently than the 3 dimensions of space. This 4D “block” lead to the term “block time”. This sculpture sounds much like Rav Dessler’s “seeing the entirety”, so I think the use of his term is meaningful when speaking of his view of “Time” during creation, the end of days, or of a soul before and after its life.

It is interesting to follow the parallel between Rav Dessler’s metaphor and Davies’ to explore how Rav Dessler’s position compares to R’ Yaakov (“Gerald”) Shroeder’s resolution of the time of creation issue. To start: both dismiss the notion that 6 days does not rule out it also being something else.

The Fire Within the Bush

“Dirshu Hashem behimatz’o — seek G-d when He can be found, qara’uhu bihyoso qarov — call Him when He is near.””Shuvu eilai, veashuva aleikhem — Return to Me and I will return to you.”Contrasting images. The first is one of G-d initiating the repentance process, and man responding after Hashem has first made Himself available. The second is G-d’s cry for us to initiate, and then He will respond. A relationship is cyclic, feeding back upon itself. There is no clear initial point; each step gradually deepens the bond.

In Unsaneh Toqef, we find the following as part of the description of what the high holidays are like in heaven. “And a great shofar will be blown, and a small still voice will be heard, and the angels will be atremble, and panic and fear will grip them, and they will cry ‘Here is the day of judgment!’” The “small still voice”, the “qol demamah daqah” is a quote from Melachim I, from a lesson Hashem teaches Eliyahu hanavi. First the prophet is buffeted by a powerful wind, and G-d says, “I Am not in the wind”, then he hears a loud crash, “I Am not in the crash”, then a fire, and G-d says that He is neither there. Then “a small thin voice”. What sets the angels in panic? Not the great and mighty shofar, but the response within the human soul. What forces them to proclaim the day of judgment? Not the clarion call announcing that now is “He can be found”, but the person seeking Him, returning to G-d so that He will return to them.

Moshe rabbeinu’s first recorded prophecy, his sight of the burning bush, has a similar lesson.

2: And Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, here! the bush burned with fire bo’eir ba’eish, and the bush was not consumed.3: And Moshe said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, madu’ah lo yiv’ar haseneh — why the bush does not burn.”

4: And when Hashem saw that he turned to look, Hashem called him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moshe, Moshe!” And he said: “Here I am.”

In pasuq 2, a mal’akh appears to Moshe, and the bush is bo’eir ba’eish. However, Moshe turns aside from that vision. He turned to see that lo yiv’ar hanseh — no, it’s not really burning. There is a fire within the bush, only at the core. The mal’akh speaks mitoch, from within the bush. The truer revelation that Moshe rabbeinu saw beyond the angel was one if tzimtzum, Divine Constriction. When Moshe realizes this, the nevu’ah is elevated from a prophet’s speech to an angel to Moshe’s unique ability to speak “face to ‘Face’” with G-d. Moshe merited this nevu’ah because he was “anav mikol adam — more modest than any other man.” His anivus is a reflection and imitation of that very tzimtzum, which is how Moshe alone would turn to take another look.

The mal’akh appeared in the big, the flashy. The first glance made it seem that the whole bush was aflame. It’s like the shofar gadol blowing, announcing Hashem’s presence. The angel declared behimatz’o — here and now Hashem could be found. But Moshe’s response one to the qol demamah dakah, he saw Hashem limiting his presence to allow for a response, to demand derashah — seeking Him out. Realizing that you must respond, that you aren’t simply entitled, that is anivus. And therefore Moshe connected to the A-lmighty in a way no one else did before or since.

Divine Timelessness

Bereishis Rabbah( 5:5):

G-d made the creation of water conditional on its splitting before the Jews when they left Egypt….It was not just with the sea that He made a stipulation but with everything that He created during the six days of creation…. G-d commanded the sea to divide, the heavens and earth to be silent before Moshe…the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua, the ravens to feed Eliyahu, the fire not to burn Chananya, Mishael and Azariyah, the lions not to harm Daniel, the Heavens to open before Yechezkeil and the fish to spit out Yonah.

(See also Rambam Shemoneh Peraqim, ch 8, his commentary on Avos 5:6, and Rabbeinu Bachye on Avos 5:8. Sources posted to Avodah by R’ Daniel Eidensohn.)

The problem with miracles is that they seem to imply that G-d changed His Mind between establishing the natural order and choosing to perform that miracle. However, G-d is timeless.

G-d’s timelessness seems to also pose problems with free will. How can I be free to choose when G-d already knows what my choice will be? Rabbi Aqiva seems to simply take it as a divine mystery, “hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah — all is foreseen, but freedom is granted.” The Rambam, in Hilkhos Teshuvah, also describes it as a Divine Mystery. If we can’t understand what it means that He knows something, where He and His Knowledge are one, and where learning (which is a process of change, and therefore of time) is not involved, how can we discuss mysteries about how that knowledge interacts our free will?

The Or Samei’ach explains it slightly differently. Just as His Knowledge of the past does not change the nature of the present, so too His Knowledge of the future. Because to Him, past and future are the same.

Rav Dessler writes that our perception of the flow of time is a product of eating of the tree of knowledge. With eating the fruit, man’s free will became centered on a progression from desire to effort to fulfillment or frustration. This gives our concept of time a flow, a direction. Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. Adam saw “from one end of the world to the next”, an expression also used of a baby’s soul before birth. They see the map without the paper in front; all of time from one end to the other.

Rav Dessler’s metaphor is akin to Paul Davies’ description of Einsteinian spacetime. In relativistic physics, the universe is a four dimensional sculpture. We think of it as a 3d movie, with time having a flow that the three spatial dimensions do not. But that’s an illusion of our perception.

From this perspective, the Or Samei’ach’s answer is compelling. G-d is like an observer, looking at a sculpture. Yes, the observer could look at one point in the height of the sculpture while touching or moving a lower one. Just as G-d could Know the entirety of history while interacting with any one point in it.

G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.

The Legislative Authority of a Bas Qol

A brief summary of the Encyclopedia Talmudit entry on “Bas Qol”, the paragraph about its impact on halachah:An Achna’i-style oven was made from pieces of pottery that were not cemented together. So, the question arose: Can it, like any other oven, become tamei? Or, is it like shards of pottery which can not? Rabbi Yehoshua and the other sages ruled stringently. Rabbi Yehoshua ruled leniently.When the vote was taken, Rabbi Eliezer disputed the result. “If I am right, let the carob tree prove it.” The tree flew through the air. But the chakhamim replied that we don’t accept halachic rulings from trees. He similarly makes a stream flowed backwards, and even the walls of the beis medrash started to buckle. All three times, the miracles back Rabbi Eliezer, but the sages insist the law follows the majority. Rabbi Eliezer then appeals to heaven, and a bas qol declares, “Why are you disputing with R. Eliezar, for the Halakhah is according to him everywhere”. Rabbi Yehoshua rose to his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven.” (Devarim 30:12)Several generations later, Rav Noson asked Eliyahu haNavi what happened in heaven during that story. He is told that G-d “smiled” and said, “Nitzchuni banai — My children have defeated me!”

However, in Eiruvin 13b, the bas qol is relied upon to give precedence to Beis Hillel. “These and those are the words of the living G-d, but the halachah is like BH.”

The two stories therefore appear to conflict on the question of the precedence of bas qol vs. normal halachic process.

1- Rav Nissim Gaon (Berachos 19a), opinion I: The bas qol said “halachah k’moso b’chol makom”. As a general rule, the halachah is like R’ Eliezer, but not here. The halachic conclusion does not contradict the bas qol, and it’s even possible that the BQ caused them to reach their decision.

2- Ibid, opinion II: The bas qol was only a test for the sages. Again, normally BQ would have halachic power.

3- Tosfos (Eiruvin 6b) I: The bas qol was only for the kavod of R’ Eliezer, who called down the opinion of Shamayim. BQ does NOT have halachic authority.

#3 is only possible (assuming that G-d doesn’t lie) by saying that R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua were in an eilu va’eilu situation — both were right. Therefore, to show R’ Eliezer respect, G-d asserts that R Eliezer isn’t wrong even though the halachah is like R’ Yehoshua. In short, exactly the same point made by the BH vs BS story.

4- Tosfos II: There is a difference between whether the bas qol runs counter to metahalachah (normal halachic process), or in accordance with it. Bas qol can confirm a ruling, but not run counter to normal halachic process. Metahalachically, we follow BH because they are the majority. The BQ only confirms that fact.

(Why did it need confirmation? Probably because this is the first generation that the Sanhedrin was in exile, and because BS were generally considered the sharper group. Therefore there was a crisis in confidence in rejecting BS’s opinion without word from the Chamber of Hewn Wood.)

5- Or Samei’ach (Yesodei HaTorah 9:4): There is a distinction between whether the bas qol is clarifying a particular halachah and whether it speaks of a person’s ruling. In the first case, BQ is certainly not followed — metahalachah is the G-d-given means of creating new halachah. (cf
Temurah 16:1, where the prophet Yehoshua refuses to retrieve lost halachos via prophecy.) In the second, we do follow Beis Hillel, as per the BQ. (Although R’ Yehoshua disagreed about this use of bas qol as well.)

#5 appears to be nearly identical to #4, but with the added statement that given two true answers (speaking of one of two extant rulings), i.e. metahalachah allows one to follow either, BK can be followed. His conclusion is that even had BH and BS been of equal number, the halakhah would still be like BH.

In short, RNG gives authority to BQ to override halachic process, and the Achnai story’s bas qol is a special case for two different reasons. Tosafos and the OS agree that BQ has less authority than metahalachah, and possibly even no halachic say at all.

In either case it’s a question of whether one follows pre-existing rules for making halachic decisions despite supernatural evidence. It’s support for the notion of metahalachah, not for arbitrary leeway in making decisions.

FWIW, RYB Soloveitchik notes that “nitzchuni” does not mean “conquered”. Rather, by the normal rules of grammar it would be singular first person passive causitive of netzach (eternal). At the end of the Achnai story G-d is actually saying “My children have made Me [i.e. My Torah] eternal”. Which it would not be if we were limited to those decisions revealed at Sinai that weren’t lost.

Politeness and Taharah

The word “polite” comes from the Latin “politus” via the Old English “polit”, to polish. Polish is itself of the same derivation.I think this is a very telling statement about Western Culture. Politeness is about perfecting the surface. It doesn’t demand a change of the self, but putting up the appropriate front for others.

This is the key to a contrast Stephen Covey (most famous for “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“) makes between his approach to self-help and the majority of the field. His book is about finding your core values and seeing how to implement them — including improving your relationships. To give an example Covey doesn’t make explicitly, Dale Carnegy deals with improvement by giving pragmatic and surface-polishing approach, “How to Win Friends and Influence People“.

In Mesukim MiDevash for Chukas, I identified the Jewish approach to the relationship between mind and the physical world with taharah. Taharah is also the term used for the purity of a metal — the menorah must be made of (pure gold). zahav tahor. Taharah, then, is the lack of adulteration of the mind with prejudices caused by the body. Free to choose when to pursue its physical needs and desires, man can consciously control his relationship to the physical world and the people we encounter in it.

Judaism looks to create ba’alei chessed, people who relate to this world primarily in terms of its opportunities to give and share with others. Not to simply be polite and act inoffensively. Which doesn’t quite work; backstabbing while smiling and using just the implications is a feature of “polite society”. But to actually have a relationship with the other.