Friday, September 30, 2016

Nitzavim 5631

Do We Have a Natural Inclination To Do Good?  What about Free Will?

At the end of this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, “הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ .../Today, I bring the heavens and earth as witnesses (that I have warned) you …” (Devarim 30:19)  What is the significance of the heavens and earth that God chose to bring them to testify?  Rashi[1] explains that God is referring to the heavens and earth in order to admonish us and encourage us to fulfill His will.  The heavens and the earth always fulfill God’s will.  The sun always rises in the morning.  Wheat seeds always produce wheat, never barley.  They fulfill the will of God even though they receive no reward for doing so and are not punished if they transgress.  We, who receive reward upon fulfilling the will of God and are punished when we transgress, should certainly be moved to fulfill God’s will.

How, the Sfas Emes asks, can the nation be compared to the heavens and the earth, though?  The heavens and the earth always fulfill the will of God because they have no free will.  They have no choice, make no decision.  We have free will.  Confronted with a situation, we need to decide what we are going to do.

The Sfas Emes explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us a fundamental lesson in serving God.  We learn from the heavens and the earth that fulfilling God’s will is built into the Creation.  It is a part nature.  We too, if not for the overpowering influence of our evil inclination, would be drawn to fulfill God’s will just like every other creation[2].  To the extent that we do not allow our evil inclination to overpower us, we are automatically inner-directed towards good.

With this concept we can understand a pasuk in Tehillim (62:13), “וּלְךָ־ה' חָסֶד כִּי־אַתָּה תְשַׁלֵּם לְאִישׁ כְּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ/And you God have kindness for you repay a man according to his action.”  The Gemara[3] notes the difficulty in the pasuk.  Repaying a man according to his action does not seem to be an aspect of kindness.  Does a person not deserve to be repaid according to his action? 

However, the question is based on the premise that our decisions are not influenced in any way neither for good nor for bad.  If there is nothing influencing us, then repaying a person according to his deeds is indeed justice, not kindness.  However, if the desire to do good is built into nature, and our job is to refrain from being drawn after the evil inclination, the question becomes moot.  God repays man according to his action even though the yearning to accomplish His will comes from Him.  This truly is kindness.

This concept answers a question regarding fulfilling mitzvos of the heart.  One of the Torah’s cardinal mitzvos is the requirement to love God – Ahavas HaShem.  Since this is a mitzvah of the heart – it requires no action – how does one fulfill this mitzvah if he does not feel love towards God?  The Rambam[4] teaches that we can reach Ahavas HaShem/Love for God through contemplating the wonders of the Creation.  

The Sfas Emes answers that Ahavas HaShem/Love for God, is naturally built into our hearts.  If we do not feel it, it is because the evil inclination is drawing us after illicit passions which hide the natural passion for God that is within us.  By being careful not to be drawn after illicit desires, our entire being, heart and soul, naturally gravitates towards God.  May we merit it!

[1]Rashi ad loc.
[2] See Ramban on Devarim 30:6 says exactly this, “… but after the Mashiach comes choosing good will be part of nature
[3]Rosh HaShanah17b
[4]Moreh Nevuchim 3:28; Yad HaChazakah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2

Friday, September 16, 2016

Teitzei 5631 Third Ma'amar

Shilu'ach HaKein - Mercy or Decree

In this week’s parsha we find the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein.[1]  If person comes upon a bird’s nest and wants to eat, he mustn’t take the mother bird thus leaving the chicks to die.  Rather he must take the chicks.  The Torah, in an apparent show of mercy, directs us to first send the mother bird away from the nest before taking its chicks or eggs.  In fact, the first Midrash on our parsha states emphatically that from this mitzvah we see that God is full of mercy towards birds.[2] 

A Mishna[3] in Maseches Brachos though, teaches that we silence one who says, as part of his prayers, that God is merciful and His mercy reaches the bird’s nest since He commanded us to send away the mother before taking the chicks.  Rather, we must view all of God’s commandments as decrees.  Why is this? 

The Sfas Emes explains that even though, in truth, the mitzvos are an expression of God’s mercy, we are nevertheless required to relate to them only as decrees and to fulfill them as a servant who fulfills his master’s instructions.  We silence one who attributes the mitzvah to God’s mercy, even though he speaks the truth, because his words indicate that he performs the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy rather than to fulfill God’s decree. 

This is a subtle difference.  Indeed, why is it wrong to perform the mitzvah in order to express God’s mercy?  Why must we silence this person?  The reason we silence him, the Chazal explain, is because he makes God’s mitzvos mercy when in fact they really are decrees.[4]  According to this, God’s mitzvos are not an expression of His mercy.  They are in fact decrees that we are required to fulfill without regard to, and perhaps without even knowing, their ultimate reasons. 

This explanation clearly contradicts the Midrash.  To reconcile the Midrash with this Gemara we need to gain a clear understanding of how the mitzvos express God’s will.  Unquestionably, the mitzvos are a manifestation of God’s will.  However, since God is infinite, it follows that every characteristic we can attribute to God is infinite as well.  God’s mercy, for example, is infinite.  The mitzvos, of course, are finite.  How, then, can the finite mitzvos manifest God’s infinite will? 

The answer to this question can be understood from the words the Gemara above uses for mitzvos and decrees, midos and gezeiros respectively.  The word mida also means a measure.  In order to enable us to fulfill His will, God “shrunk” His will, as it were, into measured doses.  These measured doses of God’s will are the Torah and the mitzvos.

Although the source of the mitzvah of shilu’ach hakein is certainly God’s infinite mercy, its physical manifestation in this world is only a representation of God’s mercy.  It is a mida/measured dose.  The Zohar teaches that it is called a gezeira/decree because it is nigzar/cut from God’s infinite mercy but it is not His infinite mercy. 

The one who prays and says that God’s mercy reaches the birds implies that we can understand God’s mercy, but we cannot because it is infinite.  The physical can never completely express any attribute of God.  To say or imply that it does is an unwarranted constriction of the infiniteness of God’s attributes and a dangerous misunderstanding of how they are expressed in the finite physical world.  While we, of course learn mercy from this mitzvah, our approach to performing it and all other mitzvos needs to be as a servant who performs his master’s will regardless of the reason.

[1]Devarim 22:6-7
[2]Devarim R. 6:1
[3]Brachos Mishna 5:3
[4]Brachos 33b