INSIGHT
5772 - #16

Bo

BECHIRA

            In regard to a vast number of mitzvot, we find that one of the essential purposes of the mitzvah is to foster a remembrance of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. As a significant event in our history, especially as the event that forged our nationhood,1 we can clearly understand why maintaining a memory of this event would be significant for us. The extent to which we are commanded to undertake activities to spur this memory, though, may be questioned. Chinuch, Mitzvah 16, indeed, raises this issue in commenting on why there are so many mitzvot undertaken in order to remember the miracles of Egypt.2 Ramban, Shemot 13:16 extends this question to further ask why there are so many mitzvot, that seem to have nothing to do with the Exodus, that include the concept that they are to remind us of this event.3 Ramban, in responding to his query, points to the significance of the miracles that were performed within this event for, in that they defied nature, they clearly demonstrated that God was above nature, in fact its Creator. We are, as such, consistently called upon to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim for it is the foundation of the entire Torah: as it establishes, beyond any doubt, the truth of Hashem’s Existence and gives sense to the observance of mitzvot as a whole.  

            Shemot 6:7, 7:5 are two verses that clearly state that God’s very purpose in performing the miracles of the Exodus was to establish, both amongst the Jewish People and amongst the Egyptians, the reality of His Being and His Existence. It would seem that, for everyone who witnessed the events of the Exodus, one of the necessary outcomes was that there was no doubt about God and that it was important to God that, at least at some point in history, this was presented to Mankind.4 The problem that many have with such a recognition, though, is that, it would seem, such surety about God would also challenge the concept of bechira, free choice.5 How could one, knowing full well of the Existence of God, challenge His command?

            As such, in order to maintain the possibility of bechira, counter-arguments exist that maintain that, in regard to whatever God did, there also had to be possible ways of explaining what occurred without reliance upon the intervention of an Omnipotent Divinity. Such a concern has led people, for example, to attempt to find possible natural explanations for what occurred.6 Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Shemot 7:22, in explaining why there is no longer any magic today, states that it was only when there were open miracles that magic existed, for magic was then necessary to maintain the possibility of bechira. As such, bechira could also exist after the Exodus, even as it was seen to be wondrous, because of the possibility that a contention of magic could be voiced to explain what occurred in a different manner. Yet, such an assertion takes us full circle, for the very purpose of the miracles of the Exodus was, it is maintained, to unequivocally reveal God. Our subsequent question must be: is it really true that bechira is only possible because of doubt?

            Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 8:1, indeed, challenges the idea that the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim established the truth without any doubt for there would still always be the question that perhaps they were the product of some magic. Nevertheless, he also still maintains that there was a point in history that the truth, without any doubt, was presented. To Rambam, however, this occurred at Har Sinai and, as such, he asserts that no one who witnessed Revelation ever questioned it. Are we then to maintain – is it even possible for us to maintain – that those who were at Har Sinai no longer had bechira?7 It must be that, at its very core, bechira can exist even without any doubt about God.   

            The concept that one cannot be punished by a court unless the person is first warned that the act that he/she is about to do is in violation of the Torah and then states, in response, that he/she accepts this obligation to be true, would seem to also indicate that bechira is not dependent on doubt. Doubt is actually a defense. Rosh, Mo’ed Katan 3:59 writes that the very punishments of the court are specifically because one is defying God, not because of succumbing to passion. If the person was performing the act due to passion, why would he/she respond to the warning of the witnesses, especially knowing full well that without a response the court cannot punish? It must be that the person wishes to defy God without any doubt that he/she is doing so. At its core, bechira must mean that the human being has some type of drive to defy God even knowing full well the truth of His Existence. It is this drive that is at the essence of bechira.8  

            The reality is, however, that it would still have to take a great amount of fortitude for someone to defy God in full recognition of His Presence. The true rasha, evildoer, must, as such – and it is strange even to state this – be a person of great strength. For the vast majority of us, however, the possibility of sin only exists because of doubt. Otherwise, we could not even contemplate doing an act that would defy God. Interestingly, though, this very doubt may also be our defense.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 See Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Edoth 2:23.

2 His explanation is psychological. The greater the amount of activities that are undertaken with a certain focus, the greater one will be affected by this focus. As such the more that is done to establish the memory of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the more one will incorporate this memory.  

3 To clarify, the Chinuch’s question seems to be why there are so many mitzvot with the specific purpose of remembering Yetziat Mitzrayim. He enumerates, for example, 15 mitzvot connected with observances practiced on Pesach, such as the prohibition of chametz and the detailed commandments involved in the  korban Pesach, .that specifically emerge from a connection with the Exodus Ramban’s question seems to extend beyond this, wondering why there are so many mitzvot which would seem to have nothing to do with Yetziat Mitzrayim -- such as, for example, tefillin, which are the specific mitzvot Ramban is commenting upon here – yet the Torah still connects to the remembering of the Exodus.

4 There are many subsequent questions that emerge from such an assertion – such as why this was only necessary and, indeed, only occurred once in history – but they are beyond the parameters of this Insight.

5 In that we are told – for example, in Shemot 9:12, in the context of the sixth plague -- that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that is, removed free choice from him, perhaps this should not be seen as a problem in this context. Perhaps God knew that presenting His Existence with such surety would challenge free choice but, nonetheless, this was God’s intention at this time. The problem, however, is that such surety would present a challenge to free choice well beyond the time frame of the Exodus. The question, thus, is: how could anyone who experienced the miracles of the Exodus ever again experience bechira?

6 See, also, Ramban, Shemot 14:21.

7 Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg asked a similar, yet still somewhat different question, in that he queried how Korach could later challenge Moshe Rabbeinu, for the specific truth to which the Rambam is referring is that of Moshe’s prophecy.

8 The subsequent need would be to explain such a drive and from where it emerges, given that it would seem to be totally irrational. I leave that, at this time, for the reader to contemplate.

Nishma 2012

 


Return to top

2010 NISHMA