Ekev – Free will
Updated: Sep 5, 2019
In this parashah there is a verse (10:12) that, like Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 from last week, expresses fundamental elements of Israel's faith. The verse says: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being.”
The verb “revere” is sometimes unfortunately translated as “fear.” But since the verse also declares that God should be loved and people don’t love those of whom they are afraid, it is clear that reverence and respect for God is meant.
Commenting on this verse, one of the Sages of the Talmud deduced that human beings possess free will. Thus we read in Nidah 16, b:
Rabbi Hanina ben Papa explained: the angel in charge of pregnancy, Lailah is his name, takes the zygote that has formed and places it before God, and says: Lord of the Universe, what is the destiny of this drop? Is it someone strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor? But he does not ask whether it will be fair or evil since, as Rabbi Hanina explained: Everything is in heavenly hands (it is determined by God) except for reverence of God, as it is said: “And now, O Israel, …”
Being born with special abilities, having an attractive body, living in prosperity or destitution, is largely determined by genetic and circumstantial factors. However, it is in each person’s hands whether they will act with justice, love and equity or behave maliciously.
The phrase of Rabbi Akiva (Avot 3:15): "Everything is destined, but a person has free will," led Maimonides to ask the question: how is it that God who is omniscient does not know the path that each individual must choose?, and if He knows it, how does the human being have free will? His answer was that the God’s omniscience is inscrutable to humans. But the sage went on to say that without the belief that humans possess the ability to choose between good and evil, the entire biblical conception of the human being is without substance (Yad, Hiljot Teshuva, chap. 5; eighth chapter of the introduction to Treaty of Avot, "Shemona Perakim").
Human persons are always responsible for their actions, beyond the circumstances in which they finds themselves (Mishnah Baba Kama 2: 6). This is because they can discern and to choose between good and evil. Moses expressed this in one of the last lessons he gave to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:19). This concept defines the biblical vision of humanity. Human beings will be held accountable in the World to Come whether they chose rightly during their lifetimes.