"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Do we have a choice to follow Torah? Of course, all individuals possess free will. What I ask here is something different: did God present to man the Torah lifestyle as an option, or as an inescapable obligation?

Reviewing history, Adam and all Noahides were not given their commands by choice. Adam was commanded – without option – not to eat of the fruit and not to violate idolatry (Sanhedrin, 56b). Noahides have no choice regarding their laws (ibid). When I say “no choice”, I mean that disobedience meets with punishment, regardless of a Noahide accepting God’s authority and system. Noah’s sinful and uncorrectable generation was killed, and Babel’s generation met with dispersion as their correction. Egypt was destroyed for not following God, as were other peoples. This teaches that these societies were in violation, as God previously warned them not to violate (Sanhedrin 56b). All these cultures and peoples had no defense, had they claimed they never accepted God’s laws. Violation was met with punishment regardless of their acceptance.

In Mara, en route to Sinai, the lesson of punishment is again taught. The Jews had thirsted three days and the waters finally located at Mara were bitter and undrinkable. The waters were then made sweet through a miracle, and they drank. Moses then instructed the people (Exod. 15:26): “If you will listen to God’s voice, perform what is upright in His eyes, heed God’s commands and guard His statutes, then God will not place any of the sicknesses upon the you that He had placed upon Egypt”.

Up to this point, all seems consistent: all members of mankind were not presented with an option to decline God’s Noahide laws, where such a rejection would exempt them from punishment. The contrary is true: God punished man for rejecting God’s Noahide laws, whether mankind accepted them or not.

However, in Exodus 24:7 we read of Moses’ recital of many laws before the Jews; and the Jews’ subsequent response of “Naaseh v’Nishma”, “We will do and we will listen”. Does this imply that here, man was offered an option? In Mara, the Jews were taught laws, and in Exodus 19:1-8, when the Jews first arrived at Sinai, Moses presented the elders with God’s treaty of the Torah:

“In the third month of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day they came to the Sinai desert. And they journeyed from Rephidim and they came to the Sinai desert; and the Children of Israel camped in the desert, and the Jews camped facing the mountain. And Moses ascended to God and God called to him from the mountain saying, “So shall you speak to the house of Jacob, and tell the Children of Israel: You have seen what I have done to Egypt and I carried you on eagle’s wings and I brought you to Me. And now, if you certainly listen to My voice and guard my covenant, then you will be to Me a treasure from all peoples, for unto Me is the entire Earth. And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you shall speak to the Children of Israel”. And Moses came and called to the elders of the people and he placed before them all these words, which God had commanded. And the entire nation answered as one and they said, “All that God has spoke we will do”. And Moses reported their response to God.”

Did God tell Moses to offer the Children of Israel a “choice” of accepting Torah? And had the nation rejected the Torah, would they be exempt from punishments for violating what is written? This would be completely inconsistent with God’s relationship with Noahides, who had no option.

Later in Deuteronomy (Deut. 29:14) another Torah bris (treaty) is created between God and the Jews prior to entering Israel:  “And not with you alone do I make this bris and this curse, but with all standing here with us today before Hashem our God, and with all those who are not here today”. Now it appears the Jews are in receipt of an imposed system; one that is obligatory even upon future generations not yet alive to decide for themselves. Certainly this proves that Torah is not optional.

Regarding this latter treaty we learn of horrific curses for our violation, and the response of the nations (Deut. 19:23):

“And all the nations will say, ‘On what account has God done this to the land? What caused this great, heated fury?” And they will answer, ‘On account that they [the Jews] abandoned the treaty of God of their fathers which He made with them when He took them out of Egypt. And they served other gods and they bowed to them’…”

What new consideration demanded this new Torah treaty where God would lay waste to the land? Why was the land brought into the equation? And which way is it: is Torah a choice, or an option?

God’s Relationship with Mankind

It was an act of great kindness that God created our species. For mankind can arrive at such a deeply fulfilling existence through studying God’s wisdom. Man alone possesses intelligence; engaging it is God’s intent for us. This is where we will find the deepest gratification. By commanding Adam not to eat of the fruit and abstain from idolatry, God taught mankind that we are servants, and thus, God’s instructions are to be heeded. We must not freely engage in all physical desires (prohibition of fruit) and we must view our relationship with God as a servant before his only Master (idolatry). God’s act of “commanding” Adam laid down the rule: He is the Master and we are servants. But of course, God does not need man, or anything. His creation of our species is for our benefit alone; not His. We should view His plan for us as our only choice. It is the greatest good He can offer us, as He clearly indicates which choices we must make; those that lead to happiness and success. He is like a teacher giving us the answers before the test. Yes, ultimately we choose all our actions. But this does not mean that no repercussions and unhappiness await the wrong choices. On God’s words “And guard my treaty [of Torah] (Exod. 19:5),”  Sforno comments: “In the manner that I will not need to do to you as I have done to Egypt”. Meaning, if we did not follow the Torah we would suffer the consequences. Sforno teaches that Torah was not an option.

Ramban (Exod. 19:7) “Choose for yourselves today if you will follow the Torah”

The obvious question is this: if the Jews were not being given the option of following or rejecting the Torah, for what reason were they ‘presented’ with it, and for what reason did they respond “Naaseh v’Nishma?” This seems to be a response to an option. Let’s read the exact words again, which the Torah records upon the Jews’ arrival at Sinai:

“And Moses came and called to the elders of the people and he placed before them all these words, which God had commanded. And the entire nation answered as one and they said, “All that God has spoke we will do”. And Moses reported their response to God.”

There’s one more source that sheds light on our question. Talmud Avoda Zara 2b, quoting Havakuk 3: 6 says that at one point in history, “God arose, assessed mankind, He ‘saw’ and released the nations from their 7 Noahide commands.” The Talmud asks, “What did God ‘see’?”  The Talmud answers, “He saw that the nations abandoned the Noahide laws, and therefore God released them from their obligation.” We know this release is not literal, so how do we understand this?

The Talmud concludes that as the nations abandoned Noahide laws, any future Noahide who followed the laws would be considered as one “not commanded”. This means that once the chain of transmission of Noahide law was broken, no future Noahide could say he was “following God”, since the transmission that God commanded these laws was lost from society. As such, man’s adherence to any of these “laws” would not be out of obedience to God, but of societal practicality, “as if” God released them. Thus, such individuals could not be rewarded as “followers of God”. It is only one who knows that he is adhering to “God’s will” who truly lives as God desires.

It was for this reason that God gave Adam at least one command. For without any command, Adam would not know from nature alone that he is to serve God. But now commanded, Adam’s actions can be rightfully considered as “following God”. So God never released the Noahides from their laws. The Talmud is teaching that when the transmission of Noahide law was lost, people’s acting in line with the Noahide laws were viewed as if not commanded, since they were not following “God’s word”, but rather, society.

Similarly, most scientists today study the universe without a yearning to draw closer to the Creator. They are content to solve problems and discover new laws. This alone is intriguing, as they are using their minds, and they are amazed at what they find. Yet, tragically, they miss the mark. Moses was different, as he asked God to unveil more of His nature, “Show me Your honor (Exod. 33:18).” Moses thirsted to learn about the Creator, not only the creation. This offers man the most fulfilling existence. Following or studying ideas without the appreciation of the Designer, falls infinitely short of our purpose, and our fulfillment. We have the capacity to establish a “relationship” with the Creator. Maimonides teaches (Hilchos Teshuva 7:7) that a sinner might be disgusting, distant and abominable before God one day, but with repentance, he becomes loved and desirous, close and beloved. This teaches that we are to strive to establish, and maintain a ‘relationship’ with God.

Love of God is the highest expression of human perfection. Without God as our focus, the greatest scientist does not fulfill his role for which he was created. Nor does he reach the level of fulfillment possible for him. A wise Rabbi would say this after uncovering a new idea in Talmud: “Let’s enjoy the idea”. He would add that one’s studies must eventuate in an appreciation for God, and not stop at the idea alone.

Perhaps this is why Moses placed before the Jews all these words, which “God had commanded.”  And also why the entire nation answered “All that God has spoken” we will do. Moses and the nation realized the core issue: the Torah system “emanates from God”, He is the focus, and our drawing near to Him is our objective. The answer of “Naaseh v’Nishma” was not stated as a response to an option, for the Jews and no people were ever given an option. “Naaseh v’Nishma” was stated as a realization that as God commanded us in Torah, this is the sum total of human life. “We will do” was the Jews’ expression that without Torah, life is truly meaningless.

Immediately after this statement, God tells Moses He will orchestrate Revelation at Sinai so the people possess proof of the system as truly divine. God thereby gave us the means by which that generation, and all future generations, would have proof of the Torah’s divine nature. We would have all that is necessary to arrive at a love of God. It is significant that prior to the overwhelming event of Revelation, the Jews had already agreed to the Torah system, based on the fundamentals taught to them prior to that event, and their salvation. And although Moses presented God’s words to the elders, it was the entire nation that responded and accepted Torah.

So all is consistent: from Adam through Noahides and through Israelites, all systems and laws were given without option.

Rabbi Elazar Hakfar stated (Avos 4:22):

“Against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give a judgment and accounting before the King, King of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Some may ask, “What justice is there in a system that is thrown upon mankind, without option?”  The response is as follows. Man cannot say he will reject Torah, and have any claim that “Since I never accepted it, I should not be punished”.  For both Torah, and human life are God’s creations. To say “I will live without Torah”, is to say that I wish to enjoy one of God’s creations – my own existence – but abandon the other creation – Torah. However, God did not create us to live with abandon. We have free will to do as we wish and reject Torah. But we must be honest that we are unjustified, we waste our lives, we violate God’s will…and we will suffer the consequences. If we are realistic, we will agree that our coming into existence was not up to us, so the terms of our continued existence to are not open to discussion.

To reiterate this subtle point, it is a contradiction to reject Torah. By doing so, you desire to enjoy God’s creation of your being, while rejecting His Torah.

Throughout time, with no favoring of one people over another, God made man’s mission clear, and without option. This is for our good. But we will only realize this good with Torah study. If we avoid honest inquiry into the mitzvos and ideals, into the beauty of the halachik system…we will be frustrated with every fast, with every holiday, and with all mitzvos that take us away from our emotional drives and plans. That is why people are non-observant: they have never witnessed the enjoyment of study, or the philosophy of Torah that rings true and clear. They are convinced that their lifestyle cannot be improved. They fear any detachment from their pleasures, and they are weak and not courageous enough to trust those wiser than they are.

God is equally concerned with all mankind. This explains the response of the nations when God uses the Land of Israel as a tool for education. When the Jews observe, all will go well, with great blessings. This endorses the Torah’s bountiful promises. And when we disobey God and violate His Torah, we suffer such severe consequences about which the nations say, “On account that the Jews abandoned the treaty of God of their fathers which He made with them when He took them out of Egypt.” God desires the Jews to function as a “treasure from all peoples”, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Our downfall is equally a testament to the Torah’s truth.

I say this many times: you have one life; don’t waste this one chance. And if you know of others who at present do not observe Torah, do all in your power to attract them, create strong friendships with them, and enlighten them so you give them everlasting life. And don’t stop at one person; create classes at regular intervals. God taught you, now you must teach others. Rabbi Meir said, “One who learns Torah and does not teach it, upon him it says, “The word of God he despises (Talmud Sanhedrin 99a)”.”

 

 

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