Maimondes on Free Will

    Chapter Five Halacha 1 Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his. This is [the intent of] the Torah’s statement (Genesis 3:22): “Behold, man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil,” i.e., the human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that man can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought, know good and evil, and do what he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad. Accordingly, [there was a need to drive him from the Garden of Eden,] “lest he stretch out his hand [and take from the tree of life].” Halacha 2 A person should not entertain the thesis held by the fools among the gentiles and the majority of the undeveloped among Israel that, at the time of a man’s creation, The Holy One, blessed be He, decrees whether he will be righteous or wicked. This is untrue. Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam. [Similarly,] he may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, or [acquire] any other character traits. There is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him towards either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses. This was [implied by the prophet,] Jeremiah who stated [Eichah 3:38: “From the mouth of the Most High, neither evil or good come forth.” Accordingly, it is the sinner, himself, who causes his own loss. Therefore, it is proper for a person to cry and mourn for his sins and for what he has done to his soul, the evil consequences, he brought upon it. This is implied by the following verse [ibid.:39]: “Of what should a living man be aggrieved? [A man of his sins.]” [The prophet] continues explaining, since free choice is in our hands and our own decision [is what prompts us to] commit all these wrongs, it is proper for us to repent and abandon our wickedness, for this choice is presently in our hand. This is implied by the following verse [ibid.:40]: “Let us search and examine our ways and return [to God].” Halacha 3 This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and mitzvot as [Deuteronomy 30:15] states: “Behold, I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil].” Similarly, [Deuteronomy 11:26] states, “Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],” implying that the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil. Therefore, [Deuteronomy 5:26] states: “If only their hearts would always remain this way.” From this, we can infer that the Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Rather, everything is left to their [own choice]. Halacha 4 Were God to decree that an individual would be righteous or wicked or that there would be a quality which draws a person by his essential nature to any particular path [of behavior], way of thinking, attributes, or deeds, as imagined by many of the fools [who believe] in astrology—how could He command us through [the words of] the prophets: “Do this,” “Do not do this,” “Improve your behavior,” or “Do not follow after your wickedness?” [According to their mistaken conception,] from the beginning of man’s creation, it would be decreed upon him, or his nature would draw him, to a particular quality and he could not depart from it. What place would there be for the entire Torah? According to which judgment or sense of justice would retribution be administered to the wicked or reward to the righteous? Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly! A person should not wonder: How is it possible for one to do whatever he wants and be responsible for his own deeds?—Is it possible for anything to happen in this world without the permission and desire of its Creator as [Psalms 135:6] states: “Whatever God wishes, He has done in the heavens and in the earth?” One must know that everything is done in accord with His will and, nevertheless, we are responsible for our deeds. How is this [apparent contradiction] resolved? Just as the Creator desired that [the elements of] fire and wind rise upward and [those of] water and earth descend downward, that the heavenly spheres revolve in a circular orbit, and all the other creations of the world follow the nature which He desired for them, so too, He desired that man have free choice and be responsible for his deeds, without being pulled or forced. Rather, he, on his own initiative, with the knowledge which God has granted him, will do anything that man is able to do. Therefore, he is judged according to his deeds. If he does good, he is treated with beneficence. If he does bad, he is treated harshly. This is implied by the prophets’ statements: “This has been the doing of your hands” [Malachi 1:9]; “They also have chosen their own paths” [Isaiah 66:3]. This concept was also implied by Solomon in his statement [Ecclesiastes 11:9]: “Young man, rejoice in your youth . . . but, know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment,” i.e., know that you have the potential to do, but in the future, you will have to account for your deeds. Halacha 5 One might ask: Since The Holy One, blessed be He, knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked? If He knows that he will be righteous, [it appears] impossible for him not to be righteous. However, if one would say that despite His knowledge that he would be righteous, it is possible for him to be wicked, then His knowledge would be incomplete. Know that the resolution to this question [can be described as]: “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.” Many great and fundamental principles and lofty concepts are dependent upon it. However, the statements that I will make must be known and understood [as a basis for the comprehension of this matter]. As explained in the second chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, The Holy One, blessed be He, does not know with a knowledge that is external from Him as do men, whose knowledge and selves are two [different entities]. Rather, He, may His name be praised, and His knowledge are one. Human knowledge cannot comprehend this concept in its entirety for just as it is beyond the potential of man to comprehend and conceive the essential nature of the Creator, as [Exodus 33:20] states: “No man will perceive, Me and live,” so, too, it is beyond man’s potential to comprehend and conceive the Creator’s knowledge. This was the intent of the prophet’s [Isaiah 55:8] statements: ”For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways, My ways.” Accordingly, we do not have the potential to conceive how The Holy One, blessed be He, knows all the creations and their deeds. However, this is known without any doubt: That man’s actions are in his [own] hands and The Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him [in a particular direction] or decree that he do anything. This matter is known, not only as a tradition of faith, but also, through clear proofs from the words of wisdom. Consequently, the prophets taught that a person is judged for his deeds, according to his deeds – whether good or bad. This is a fundamental principle on which is dependent all the words of prophecy.   Chapter 6 Halacha 1 There are many verses in the Torah and the words of the prophets which appear to contradict this fundamental principle. [Thus,] the majorities of the people err because of them and think that the Holy One, blessed be He, does decree that a person commit evil or good and that a person’s heart is not given over to him to direct it towards any path he desires. Behold, I will explain a great and fundamental principle [of faith] on the basis of which the interpretation of those verses can be understood. [As a preface,] when an individual or the people of a country sin, the sinner consciously and willfully committing that sin, it is proper to exact retribution from him as explained. The Holy One, blessed be He, knows how to exact punishment: There are certain sins for which justice determines that retribution be exacted in this world; on the sinner’s person, on his possessions, or on his small children. [Retribution is exacted upon a person’s] small children who do not possess intellectual maturity and have not reached the age where they are obligated to perform mitzvot [because these children] are considered as his property. [This concept is alluded to] by the verse [Deuteronomy 24:16]: “A man will die because of his own sins.” [We may infer: This rule only applies] after one has become “a man. There are other sins for which justice determines that retribution be exacted in the world to come with no damages coming to the transgressor in this world. There are [other] sins for which retribution is taken in this world and in the world to come. Halacha 2 When does the above apply? When [the transgressor] does not repent. However, if he repents, his Teshuvah is a shield against retribution. Just as a person may sin consciously and willfully, he may repent consciously and willfully. Halacha 3 A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing the judgment rendered before the True Judge to be that the retribution [administered to] this transgressor for these sins which he willfully and consciously committed is that his Teshuvah will be held back. He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed. This is implied by the Holy One, blessed be He’s statement [related] by Isaiah[6:10]: “Make the heart of this people fat [and make their ears heavy. Smear over their eyes, lest they see with their eyes . . . understand with their hearts, repent and be healed].” Similarly, [II Chronicles 36:16] states “They mocked the messengers of God, scorned His words, scoffed at His prophets until the anger of God mounted up against His people until there was no remedy.” Implied [by these verses] is that they willingly sinned, multiplying their iniquity until it was obliged to hold back their Teshuvah, [which is referred to as] the “remedy.” For these reasons, it is written in the Torah [Exodus 14:4], “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Since, he began to sin on his own initiative and caused hardships to the Israelites who dwelled in his land as [Exodus 1:10] states: “Come, let us deal wisely with them,” judgment obligated that he be prevented from repenting so that he would suffer retribution. Therefore, The Holy One, blessed be He, hardened his heart. Why did [God] send Moses to [Pharaoh], telling him: “Send [forth the people], repent”? The Holy One, blessed be He, had already told that he would not release [the people], as [Exodus 9:30] states: “I realize that you and your subjects [still do not fear God].” [The reason is stated in Exodus 9:16:] “For this alone, I have preserved you . . . so that My name will be spoken about throughout the earth],” i.e., to make known to all the inhabitants of the world that when the Holy One, blessed be He, withholds repentance from a sinner, he cannot repent, but he will die in the wickedness that he initially committed willfully. Similarly, Sichon was held liable for repentance to be withheld from him, because of the sins he committed, as [Deuteronomy 2:30] states: “God, your Lord, hardened his spirit and strengthened his heart.” Also, the Canaanites held back from repenting, because of their abominable acts, so that they would wage war against Israel as [Joshua 11:20] states: “This was inspired by God, to harden their hearts so that they should come against Israel in battle in order to utterly destroy them.” Similarly, the Israelites during the era of Elijah committed many iniquities. Repentance was held back from those who committed these many sins, as [I Kings 18:37] states: “You have turned their heart backwards,” i.e., held repentance back from them. In conclusion, the Almighty did not decree that Pharaoh should harm the Israelites that Sichon should sin in his land, that the Canaanites should perform abominable acts, or that the Israelites should worship idols. They all sinned on their own initiative and they were obligated to have Teshuvah held back from them. Halacha 4 This is what is implied in the requests of the righteous and the prophets in their prayers, [asking] God to help them on the path of truth, as David pleaded [Psalms 86:11]: “God, show me Your way that I may walk in Your truth;” i.e., do not let my sins prevent me from [reaching] the path of truth which will lead me to appreciate Your way and the oneness of Your name. A similar intent [is conveyed] by the request [Psalms 51:14]: “Support me with a spirit of magnanimity;” i.e., let my spirit [be willing] to do Your will and do not cause my sins to prevent me from repenting. Rather, let the choice remain in my hand until I repent and comprehend and appreciate the path of truth. In a similar way, [one must interpret] all the [verses] which resemble these. Halacha 5 What was implied by David’s statement [Psalms 25:8-9]: “God is good and upright, therefore, he instructs sinners in the path. He guides the humble [in the path of justice and] teaches the humble His way]”? That He sends them prophets to inform them of the path of God and to encourage them to repent. Furthermore, it implies that He granted them the power to learn and to understand. This attribute is present in all men: As long as a person follows the ways of wisdom and righteousness, he will desire them and pursue them. This [may be inferred from] the statement of our Sages of blessed memory: “One who comes to purify [himself] is helped;” i.e., he finds himself assisted in this matter. [A question may still arise, for] behold, it is written in the Torah [Genesis 15:13]: “They shall enslave them and oppress them,” [seemingly implying that] He decreed that the Egyptians would commit evil. Similarly, it is written [Deuteronomy 31:16]: “And this nation will arise and stray after the alien gods of the land,” [seemingly implying that] He decreed that Israel would serve idols. If so, why did He punish them? Because He did not decree that a particular person would be the one who strayed. Rather, each and every one of those who strayed to idol-worship [could have chosen] not to serve idols if he did not desire to serve them. The Creator merely informed [Moses] of the pattern of the world. To what can this be compared? To someone who says, there will be righteous and wicked people in this nation. [Thus,] a wicked person cannot say that because God told Moses that there will be wicked people in Israel, it is decreed that he will be wicked. A similar concept applies regarding the statement [Deuteronomy 15:11]: “The poor will never cease to exist in the land.” Similarly, in regard to the Egyptians, each and every one of the Egyptians who caused hardship and difficulty for Israel had the choice to refrain from harming them, if he so desired, for there was no decree on a particular person. Rather, [God merely] informed [Abraham] that, in the future, his descendants would be enslaved in a land which did not belong to them. We have already explained that it is beyond the potential of man to know how God knows what will be in the future.   Chapter 7 Halacha 1 Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah and merit the life of the world to come. Halacha 2 A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner. Therefore, one should always repent from his sins immediately and should not say: “When I grow older, I will repent,” for perhaps he will die before he grows older. This was implied by the wise counsel given by Solomon [Ecclesiastes 9:8]: “At all times, your clothes should be white.” Halacha 3 A person should not think that repentance is only necessary for those sins that involve deed such as promiscuity, robbery, or theft. Rather, just as a person is obligated to repent from these, similarly, he must search after the evil character traits he has. He must repent from anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of money and honor, the pursuit of gluttony, and the like. He must repent for all [of the above]. These sins are more difficult than those that involve deed. If a person is attached to these, it is more difficult for him to separate himself. In this context, [Isaiah 55:7] exhorts: “May the wicked abandon his path and the crooked man, his designs.” Halacha 4 A Baal Teshuvah should not consider himself distant from the level of the righteous because of the sins and transgressions that he committed. This is not true. He is beloved and desirable before the Creator as if he never sinned. Furthermore, he has a great reward for he has tasted sin and yet, separated himself from it, conquering his [evil] inclination. Our Sages declared: “In the place where Baalei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand.” The level of Baalei Teshuvah transcends the level of those who never sinned at all, for they overcome their [evil] inclination more. Halacha 5 All the prophets commanded [the people] to repent. Israel will only be redeemed through Teshuvah. The Torah has already promised that, ultimately, Israel will repent towards the end of her exile and, immediately, she will be redeemed as [Deuteronomy 30:1-3] states: “There shall come a time when [you will experience] all these things . . . and you will return to God, your Lord. . . . God, your Lord, will bring back your [captivity].” Halacha 6 Teshuvah is great for it draws a man close to the Shechinah as [Hoshea 14:2] states: “Return, O Israel, to God, your Lord;” [Amos 4:6] states: “’You have not returned to Me,’ declares God;” and [Jeremiah 4:1] states: ”’If, you will return, 0 Israel,’ declares God, ‘You will return to Me.’” Implied is that if you will return in Teshuvah, you will cling to Me. Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by God, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear. Similarly, we find God employs the same expression with which He separates [Himself] from the sinners to draw close those who repent. [Hoshea 2:1] states: “Instead of saying to you: ‘You are not My nation,’ He will tell you: ‘You are the children of the living God.’” [Also, Jeremiah] speaks of Yecheniah while he was wicked [with the expression (22:30)]: “Write down this man as childless, a man who shall never prosper in his days,” and [22:24]: “Would Cheniah, the son of Yehoyakim, king of Judah, be the signet ring on My right hand, I would tear him off.” However, after he repented when in exile, [Chaggai 2:23] said concerning Zerubavel, his son: “’On that day,’ declares the God of Hosts, ‘I will take you, Zerubavel, the son of Shaltiel, My servant,’ declares God, ‘and I will place you as a signet ring.’” Halacha 7 How exalted is the level of Teshuvah! Previously, the [transgressor] was separate from God, the Lord of Israel, as [Isaiah 59:2] states: “Your sins separate between you and your God.” He would call out [to God] without being answered as [Isaiah 1:15] states: “Even if you pray many times, I will not hear.” He would fulfill mitzvot, only to have them crushed before him as [Isaiah 1:12] states: “Who asked this from you, to trample in My courts,” and [Malachi 1:10] states: “’O were there one among you who would shut the doors that you might not kindle fire on My altar for no reason! I have no pleasure in you,’ says the God of Hosts, ‘nor will I accept an offering from your hand.’” Now, he is clinging to the Shechinah as [Deuteronomy 4:4] states: “And you who cling to God, your Lord.” He calls out [to God] and is answered immediately as [Isaiah 65:24] states: “Before, you will call out, I will answer.” He fulfills mitzvot and they are accepted with pleasure and joy as [Ecclesiastes 9:7] states, “God has already accepted your works,” and [Malachi 3:4] states: “Then, shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasing to God as in days of old and as in the former years.” Halacha 8 The manner of Baalei Teshuvah is to be very humble and modest. If fools shame them because of their previous deeds, saying to them: “Yesterday, you would commit such and such [sins]. Yesterday, you would commit these and these [transgressions],” they will pay no attention to them. On the contrary, they will hear [this abuse] and rejoice, knowing that it is a merit for them. Whenever they are embarrassed for the deeds they committed and shamed because of them, their merit increases and their level is raised. It is an utter sin to tell a Baal Teshuvah, “Remember your previous deeds,” or to recall them in his presence to embarrass him or to mention the surrounding circumstances or other similar matters so that he will recall what he did. This is all forbidden. We are warned against it within the general category of verbal abuse which Torah has warned us against as [Leviticus 25:17] states: “A man should not mistreat his colleague.”  

  Excerpted from Mishneh Torah: Sefer Madda [Moznaim Publishers: New York; Jerusalem, 2010]. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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