The world of religious ideas was steadily coalescing. Gradually, God introduced humanity to fundamental principles of religion. The horrific flood demonstrated the rule of moral “cause and effect”: if humans descended into moral chaos, the world would literally collapse. Subsequently, the selection of Avraham confirmed that a mortal man could actually represent God in this world and speak in His name while receiving His prophetic word. Avraham’s migration to Israel highlighted that although God is omnipresent and spans all reality, His presence is more intensely felt in the Land of Israel. The Akeidah lessoned the world that we cannot always understand Divine purpose, but must forever submit to God’s higher wisdom. Furthermore, the Akeidah underlined that God doesn’t desire human sacrifice; Avraham was dragged to the brink of human bloodshed so that the very notion that God desires human blood could be clearly and unmistakably debunked. Step by step, humanity learned the lessons of monotheism—lessons that we take for granted.
The birth of Yaakov provides an additional lesson in this “course” about religion. Yaakov’s birth is described in elaborate detail—more so than any other pregnancy in the entire Torah. Interestingly, the pregnancy is depicted in very physiological terms. The pregnancy is detailed in three consecutive verses, each of which refer to Rivka’s stomach. We are all familiar with the course of pregnancy and the section of the human body that carries the fetus; why does the Torah continually underscore the female anatomy and its role in Rivka’s pregnancy?
The Torah’s vivid anatomical description showcases a conspicuous detail of this particular pregnancy: For the first time in the Torah’s account, two identical twins share the same womb. Highlighting the two embryos in Rivka’s abdomen emphasizes that both Yaakov and Eisav shared the same genes and were born from the same woman. Despite their identical origins, Yaakov and his twin Eisav each charted diametrically opposed paths—one choosing sedentary study in religious tents while the other choosing violence and a world of aggression. The development of these twins—born alike but paving different paths—illustrates that man is forever free to mold his life and shape his trajectory, regardless of his origin. The “pregnancy narrative” showcases the unlimited power of unrestrained free will.
The tale of free will doesn’t end with Yaakov’s choice of lifestyle. As the brother born last, Yaakov is ineligible to be the chosen one. Undeterred by his handicap, he perseveres, and with his mother’s assistance overtakes his brother and sets history right. The legacy of representing God in this world should be endowed to a man whose lifestyle supports this grand mission. How can a vicious hunter who lives by the principle of survival of the fittest hope to model the religious principles, the nobility of the human condition, and the great gifts of intellect, emotion and spirit that God handed to man? Yaakov’s early development, as well as his subsequent personal ascent, each highlight the unlimited power of human free will.
About a year ago I spoke with 22-year-old Israeli students about how their bold future decisions could impact our world. A boy politely interjected, “Rebbe, we don’t see the world that way—it doesn’t feel that free and open to us.” This was a sad epiphany to me—that the younger generation saw our world as immovable and unchanging. Evidently, scientific developments over the past two centuries have had their way and have eroded our belief in human free will. Darwin proved that species evolved, transplanting genetic material in an endless race for survival. It seemed as if our lives were shaped more deeply by random genetic events than they were by human decisions. In the 20th century, the mapping of the human mind and the tracing of human behavior to electrical stimuli suggested that human activity was compelled by neurons rather than human will. Modern psychology argued that we are driven by deeper and sometimes darker forces we cannot control. The legal system has exonerated criminal behavior instigated by uncontrollable psychological forces. This displacement of free will has absolved us of personal guilt and conscience: If we are driven to action by evolutionary forces or by powerful brain waves, can we bear responsibility for our actions? Are we all just faceless and spineless creatures pinballing from decision to decision based on forces larger that our own small existence? Two centuries of mapping the human heart and mapping the human psyche has convinced us that we aren’t free. The saga of Yaakov and his twin brother Eisav—born in the same chamber but occupying vastly different worlds—debunks this dangerous myth.
The principle of human free will has also been crushed by the outsized world we inhabit. We live in a “big” era—our institutions and personalities have swelled and seem larger than life. Rapid technological revolution has created supersized corporations such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter that supersede the natural size of a “company” and have the appearance of shaping our reality. As they control our information flow, these mega-corporations appear to shape our minds and hearts. It is difficult to sense freedom when your ideas flow through such large and controlling info-canals. Likewise, celebrities have achieved godlike status, making average people who don’t command the attention of millions feel small and insignificant. Free will is meant to swell human identity; we are meant to feel empowered by the free will gifted by God. In the modern world we feel small and we feel driven by inchoate forces beyond our control. It is crucial to magnify free will and amplify human potential in a world that shrinks our stature and mutes our personal voice.
Although Judaism asserts unlimited freedom of choice, we still believe in a predetermined collective future. Western civilization views history as progressive, human progress as evolutionary, and the future as unknown. Judaism acknowledges a predetermined conclusion to history: the world will be redeemed and humanity will flock to Yerushalayim and to God in a state of spiritual awakening. We know exactly how it ends and where it ends; the only remaining question is how soon it will end and whose shoulders will carry history toward its inevitable conclusion.
On a personal level, each individual has the unlimited capacity to act freely and to shape an otherwise undetermined future. On a grand scale, the general future of humanity is preset and unchangeable. How our freely determined decisions contribute to a predetermined historical future is God’s domain. He possesses sufficient algorithms to amass all our personal decisions and calculate the predetermined future. On a personal level, it is crucial we act completely free, undistracted by our confidence of how history will inevitably conclude.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.