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The Real Area of Free Choice

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah often highlights the fact that we are free to choose between blessing and curse, good and evil, life and death, and petitions us to choose life. The Torah then goes on to explain the positive consequences of choosing the path of good and the negative consequences of choosing the path of evil. The opening of Parshat Re’eh is a typical example of this.

The sages of the Talmud also emphasize the idea of free will and express it in the following way ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the awe of heaven’.

The Talmud explains that the fetus at conception is brought before God by an angel. The angel asks God ‘Will this child be healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, more intelligent or less intelligent, rich or poor?’ There is only one question the angel does not ask God ‘Will the child be righteous or wicked?’ This choice is not in the hands of God, but rather in the hands of each individual?’ This choice is termed by the sages ‘the awe/fear of heaven.’ Why do the sages choose express the issue of free will in these terms? Surely, it would be simpler to stay with the Torah’s terminology of good and evil, life and death etc.?

I would like to suggest that the sages use ‘awe of heaven’ to describe free will for the following reason: The mechanism behind our choice to choose good over evil is not simply choosing one over the other. The fact is that many times a decision to do the right thing is accompanied by emotional pain, a loss of money and other undesirable consequences. The morally incorrect decision is very often the easier path of least resistance. When faced with a moral dilemma of this nature, what is it that provides one with the impetus and courage to choose the often more difficult path of good? This is what our sages are expressing here – our choosing the path of good rests on the choice to allow the awareness of God to enter our minds. This is the real fundamental choice we have to make when faced with a moral dilemma. Will I allow God’s existence to enter my thought process? Will I allow place in my thought process for contemplating the will of God in this situation? If we allow God’s existence to permeate our beings we will have the strength to choose the correct path.

Rosh Chodesh Elul is upon us. The month of Elul is the time of preparation for the Judgment of Rosh Hashana. It is a time when we work on building our Yirat Shamayim (awe of heaven). Let us work on allowing awareness of God to filter into our conscious minds. In so doing we choose the path of blessing, prosperity and life, and merit to be written and sealed in the ‘book of life’.