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Do Orthodox Jews Enjoy Free Will?

Yoshiyahu HaMelech Rescues Torah Observance!

What a dramatic question we posed in our Navi Shiur at TABC! We discussed the Teshuva movement led by the great Yoshiyahu HaMelech from 622 BCE to 609 BCE (Melachim II Perek 23; the Haftara for the second day of Pesach).

Dramatically, at age 26, Yoshiyahu switched gears and became fully committed to Hashem. His Teshuva came at a critical moment. Torah observant Jews had suffered for seventy-five years under the governance of Menashe and Amon that strongly opposed Torah, sometimes even violently (as was the case with Menashe). Had Yoshiyahu HaMelech not done Teshuva, it is unlikely Torah could have survived.

The situation is similar to the Zohar’s assertion that the Jewish people had sunk to the forty-ninth level of Tumah in Mitzrayim. Had Hashem waited another moment more to free us, we would have irretrievably fallen into the abyss of the final level of Tumah. Rav Ezra Basri, a Dayan in the Jerusalem Beit Din, observed in 1993 that had the seventy years of Communist persecution of religion lasted even a bit longer, the Jewish identity of Russian Jews would have been eviscerated.

THE Question – Do We Have Free Will?

Then came the stunning question.  Hashem (Devarim 31:21 with Rashi) guarantees that the Jewish people will never completely forget the Torah –  לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ.  Yoshiyahu HaMelech’s Teshuva facilitated the fulfillment of this Divine promise.  If so, we wonder if Yoshiyahu HaMelech had free will.  After all, Hashem guaranteed that at least some Jews would always observe the Torah.  How would Hashem’s promise have been realized had Yoshiyahu HaMelech not turned to Torah? 

Ours is not a question of mere academic interest. This issue has great implications for Orthodox Jews, who today constitute the small minority of the Jewish people who still observe the Torah. We actualize Hashem’s promise that our people will not completely forget the Torah. Do we have free will?

TABC Student Answers

TABC Talmid Yonah Shatkin answers that while there will always be at least some Jews who observe Torah, each Jew has the choice if he will keep the Torah. Yonah’s approach is articulated by none other than the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 6:5). The Rambam wonders how Hashem punished the Egyptians for enslaving us if the Brit Ben HaBetarim (Bereshit Perek 15) states that they were supposed to do so. The Rambam answers that while Egypt was destined to place us in bondage, each Egyptian had the choice if he would participate.

TABC Talmid Gavi Friedbauer adds that Hashem tilts events to incline us to embrace the Torah. For example, there was a resurgence of observance in the wake of the incredible miracles of the Six-Day War. In the case of Yoshiyahu HaMelech, this great king’s Teshuva in 622 BCE was made easier by the death of the last powerful Assyrian Emperor Ashurbanipal in 627 BCE. The subsequent crumbling of the Assyrian empire lifted the tremendous pressure from these extremely powerful rulers to abandon the Torah that hovered over us for more than a century.

Despite this tilting, Yoshiyahu HaMelech retained freedom of choice. Chazal (Ta’anit 22b) teach that Am Yisrael mostly did not return to Torah despite Yoshiyahu’s colossal efforts. Yoshiyahu made the proper choice, unlike the many who did not, despite Hashem paving the way for them to return. Similarly, some Jews became observant after the Six-Day War, and some Russian Jews began to follow Torah after the fall of the Soviet Union. Free will prevails even when Hashem tilts the spiritual field in our favor. Yoshiyahu HaMelech and contemporary Orthodox Jews merit great rewards for running against the societal current and making the correct spiritual choice.

Conclusion: Megalgelim Zechut Al Yedei Zakai

Perhaps the most compelling resolution of our question emerges from Chazal’s teaching (Shabbat 32a) “Megalgelim Zechut Al Yedai Zakai UMegalgelim Chov Al Yedei Chayeiv.” This phrase means that Hashem chooses good people to bring about good and bad people to bring about negativity.Hashem controls all. Our task is to be the good person Hashem enlists to facilitate positive results. Kol HaKavod to Yoshiyahu HaMelech for choosing to be the good person who ensures fulfillment of the promise of the eternity of the Torah. Kol Hakavod to Orthodox Jews who realize the Divine promise that our people will never entirely forget the Torah.

Postscript: Hashem’s Smile at Our Learning

The day after we conducted this Shiur at TABC, we had a wonderful bat mitzvah celebration of Ma’ayan Lavi at Shaarei Orah. At the Kiddush, a guest held a handbag from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the name Ashurbanipal emblazoned in large letters! I had never seen Ashurbanipal’s name displayed on a purse or other item. Tanach and Chazal stress that there are no coincidences in life. We saw it as Hashem signaling His pleasure with our discussion!


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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