Monday, August 23, 2004

Condensation of Ch. 8 of Rambam's "Eight Chapters"

This is part of my upcoming translation
of Rambam's "Eight Chapters", to be
published shortly by Judaica Press.

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1. While you might be predisposed to a virtue or flaw from birth and thus find it easier to act one way or another, no one is ever born inherently lofty or flawed. Yet anyone can learn how to counter his disposition.

2. This is said to underscore the fact that you’re free to act any way you see fit. Though you might be predisposed toward things, you’re nonetheless never compelled to do anything. Otherwise mitzvot would be worthless, since you wouldn’t be free to do or not do whatever you wanted; education would be for naught, since you couldn’t help but do one thing or another; reward or punishment would be unfair, since you couldn’t help but live out your “fate”; and it would be worthless to take precautions or make preparations.

3. The truth is that you’re granted the freedom to act as you see fit, and nothing impels you one way or the other. As a consequence, your actions are judged, you are to study matters, and taking precautions makes sense.

4. Some people think certain things are “meant to be”, like whom a person will marry and whether a person will rob or not. But that’s not so, since those things touch upon mitzvot and sins, and are thus subject to your free will.

5. The only things you can’t choose to affect are certain natural phenomena, like your height, the weather, and the like. Hence, since you’re otherwise free, you should mourn for your sins, which you committed of your own volition, and repent for them.

6. Other natural phenomena like gravity, the laws of nature, and the like (not touching upon your own actions) are also beyond your control. Their effects were implanted from creation, and they thus follow the course laid out for them then, rather then act out of Divine compulsion moment by moment, as some think. As such, your natural ability to act on your own without anything compelling you to was implanted from creation, too. God consequently provided mankind with instructions as to how to be good, and it’s your responsibility to be as virtuous as you can, since you’re free to.

7. Sometimes, though, the Torah seems to suggest that God compels bad behavior, as when He informed Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved by the Egyptians, and when He told Moses that some Jews would serve idols after entering Canaan. But those were simply statements of fact, not direct assignments to particular Egyptians or Jews. For each individual acted as he saw fit in the circumstances. Otherwise, any warnings against profaning the Sabbath and serving idols would mean that some people would necessarily profane the Sabbath and serve idols. Still and all the idea that God “fortified Pharaoh’s heart” is problematic.

8. But in point of fact, what Pharaoh and his court did wrong from the start-- and of their own volition-- was to oppress a foreign nation (Israel) in their midst for no reason. God punished them for that by disallowing them to repent, which then set the stage for their not setting the Jewish Nation free, and for their being punished.

9. It’s important to realize that this, too, is an instance of God’s wise and just ways. For there are times when God punishes us for our misdeeds and rewards us for our good deeds here, in this world (either physically or monetarily); other times when He does so in The World to Come but not here (by preventing us from repenting); and yet other times when He does so in both. Nonetheless, we haven’t the capacity to understand why one person is punished one way and another, another way. Pharaoh’s punishment also served as a sign to everyone that God can utterly withhold a person’s freedom to act a certain way.

10. There were several other instances in which God abrogated a person’s ability to repent, including the one involving King Sichon of Cheshbon (cf. Deuteronomy 2:30), one encompassing the entire Jewish Nation at a certain point (cf. Isaiah 6:10), and one involving certain heretics (cf. 1 Kings 18:37). Nonetheless as a rule, unless God punishes you by taking away your free will, you yourself choose either to acquire virtues or settle for flaws. So take it upon yourself to acquire those virtues; for only you can impel yourself to.

11. We’ll now explain God’s foreknowledge in light of our freedom of choice. “Since God already knows whether a person will be righteous or not beforehand” some argue, “then that person has to be righteous or not in the end.” But that’s based on a basic misunderstanding of the idea of God “knowing”. God doesn’t know the way we do, so we can’t speak about His knowledge in terms of His “coming” to know something after a while. God’s knowledge is a veritable part of His Being. Otherwise, He’d have to have acquired a piece of knowledge; and that piece of knowledge would have to have existed from the very beginning for Him to have had acquired it afterwards. And that would mean that there were several entities before anything was created (i.e., God, His knowledge, and all the other traits attributed to him), which is absurd.

12. Nonetheless, we can’t fathom God’s Being or His knowledge, whatsoever. All we know is that He “knows” and He “exists”. Understand, though, that your behavior is in your hands alone, and God never compels you to behave one way or the other.

(C) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman