May 26, 2024
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הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה ובְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן (אבות ג:טו)

After emphasizing the preciousness of man (Mishnah 14), Rabbi Akiva continues in Mishnah 15 by speaking about the relationship between Hashem’s knowledge of man’s deeds and man’s choice and control over his own destiny. Though few in words, this mishnah conveys many important hashkafic ideas.1

Part 1: Hashem’s Vision

The first two words of the Mishnah, “hakol tzafui, everything is seen” (presumably by Hashem), can be interpreted in two ways: as referring to the present or as referring to the future.

The Present

Rashi2 understands the phrase as referring to the present. This is how Sefer Mishlei uses the phrase when it portrays Hashem’s “eyes” as “observing (tzofot) the bad and the good everywhere.”3

The Rambam4 lists this idea as one of our principles of faith. Hashem’s awareness of our deeds is a critical condition to sechar (reward) and onesh (punishment). If Hashem was unaware of our actions, He would not be able to reward or punish us for them.

According to Rashi’s understanding, this statement of our mishnah is similar to that of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s in the beginning of the second perek: “Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears…”5

The Future

This redundancy may be (part of) why the Rambam6 understood the phrase as referring to Hashem’s view and knowledge of not only the present, but also the future. Yeshayahu7 describes Hashem as maggid meireishit acharit—from the very beginning Hashem sees and talks (to prophets) about the future.8 The Midrash tells us that, from the beginning of time, Hashem foresaw the actions of both tzaddikim and reshaim9 and that He later showed Moshe Rabbeinu the lives of future leaders throughout the generations.10

Whether this particular mishnah is making this point or not, we know that Hashem sees not only the present but also everything in the future.

Part 2: Our Control


Hashem’s omniscience makes the Mishnah’s next two words surprising: “V’hareshut netunah—the choice is given to us.” The Rambam11 explains that despite Hashem seeing the future, we are given the choice to make decisions for ourselves. He may know what we will ultimately choose, but the choice is fully our own.12

The earliest source of man’s free choice is Hashem’s words to Kayin, “If you will be good, you will be uplifted; if not, sin crouches at the door.”13 In other words, it’s in (y)our hands. The many pesukim in Sefer Devarim14 in which Hashem and Moshe put the choice between observance and non-observance to the Jewish people reaffirm our right to choose.

The Seforno and Meshech Chochmah15 see free choice as basic to our having been created in Hashem’s image. Just as Hashem makes His own unhindered choices, so too, we human beings live as godly creatures by making decisions in the same way.16

The Rambam17 elaborates on the importance of the belief in free choice and describes it as an ikkar gadol and “amud haTorah v’hamitzvah.” Without free choice, Hashem would not need to encourage us to make the right choices; further, our decisions would be meaningless and not worthy of sechar or onesh.

Hashem’s awareness of our actions is not enough basis for reward and punishment. In order for us to deserve sechar or onesh, our actions need to be the result of decisions fully in our hands.18 The Mishnah’s two phrases are significant only when taken together. Only Hashem’s awareness (hakol tzafui) coupled with our free choice (hareshut netuna) make reward and punishment (mentioned next in this mishnah) possible.

Full Control

The word used by the mishnah to describe our choice—reshut—literally means domain or control. The implication is that we are given not only free choice to decide, but also control over the outcome. The Rambam begins his discussion about free choice by emphasizing this point, asserting that each of us has the ability to become a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu or a rasha like Yeravam, a wise man or a fool, and sensitive or insensitive.19 Though Chazal acknowledge that we are created with fixed genetic natures and nurtured by our cultural milieu,20 ultimately good choices and hard work can help us become whatever we aim for. Even one who starts learning at age 40 can become Rabbi Akiva.

This belief makes our decisions even more significant. Our choices are not only ours to make, they also determine who we become. They are not only something Hashem holds us responsible for, they are also responsible for what we amount to.

Four Important Words

Ultimately, in just two phrases consisting cumulatively of just four words, Rabbi Akiva teaches us two principles of faith that—when read together and fully appreciated—should inspire us to take ourselves and our choices seriously. Knowing that (on the one hand) Hashem is interested in and fully aware of all of our actions and that (on the other hand) our choices are fully our own to make and ultimately determine who we become should inspire us to take and make our choices carefully and live our lives maturely and responsibly.

Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser.

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 The Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayot L’Rambam, Avot 3:15) describes this mishnah as including very important principles and thus appropriate for Rabbi Akiva to have taught.

2 Rashi 3:18.

3 Mishlei 15:3. Many other Nevi’im (Yirmiya 23:24, 32:19, Zecharya 4:10, Daniel 2:22) also describe Hashem seeing all people in all circumstances. Tehillim 139 describes Hashem’s ability to see us and follow us wherever we go. The Ibn Ezra highlights this mizmor as very important, and unique to Sefer Tehillim.

4 Peirush Hamishnayot LaRambam, Hakdamah to Perek Hacheilek, Hayesod ha’asiri.

5 Avot 2:1.

6 Peirush Hamishnayot L’Rambam, Avot 3:15.

7 Yeshayahu 46:10.

8 Chazal also ascribe knowledge of the future to Hashem. Rav Yehoshua Ben Chananya proves this from the pasuk of Hashem telling Moshe, “After you die, the Jews will rebel.” Midrash Rabbah tells us that Hashem showed Moshe Rabbeinu every generation and its leaders and what will happen in each of those generations. Bereishit Rabbah says that “from the beginning of the creation of man, God observed (tzafah).”

9 Bereishit Rabbah 2:5. See also Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 90b.

10 Vayikra Rabbah 26:7.

11 Ibid.

12 The Rishonim debate how to reconcile these two ideas. See, for example, the Rambam and the response of the Ra’avad in Hilchot Teshuva 5:5; see further Tosafot Yom Tov Avot 5:15 and Orot Hateshuva 16;1.

13 Bereishit 4:7.

14 Devarim 30:15, 19. See Midrash HaGadol Devarim 30:15.

The Ramban proves this concept from Hashem’s words in Devarim, when He says after the Jews were inspired by the revelation at Har Sinai, “Who can assure that this heart should remain theirs, to fear Me and observe all My commandments all the days? (Devarim 5:26).” Hashem saying that He ‘hopes’ that the yirah should continue shows that it is not in His hands. (See the Gemara Avodah Zarah 5a, where Rebbi Chananel says this might imply otherwise.)

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32) also proves from Shemot 13:17 that Hashem does not intervene in our character development.

15 Both on Bereishit 1:26.

16 See Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:1) who explains Bereishit 3:22 in a similar way.

17 Ibid 5:3. Note that the Rambam begins the perek by paraphrasing our Mishnah.

18 See also Emunot V’Deiot of Rav Sa’adyah Goan 4:4.

19 Ibid 5:1–2.

20 The Gemara (Niddah 16b) describes how people are born with different natures: Some are weak, some are strong, some are smart, some are not. Shabbat 156 talks about the astrological influence of when a person is born: Someone born under Mars will be drawn toward bloodthirsty pursuits. Chullin 7 says that a person will not even cut his finger without that first being declared in Shamayim. Two different Gemaras declare that hakol bi’dei Shamayim (with two exceptions: yiras Shamayim and tzinim u’pachim).

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