In Defence of Free Will – Va-era 5781

D'var Torah | Exodus

God assures Moses that the elders of Israel enslaved in Egypt will listen to Moses’ report of their imminent salvation (Exodus 3:18). So it comes as a surprise to The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendl Morgensztern, to read that the elders “did not listen to Moses” (Exodus 6:9)! A contradiction in the Torah is a serious challenge to divine authorship so some solution is essential.


To the Kotzker, the solution lies in the bifurcation of the meaning of the Hebrew root word “shema.” The word can mean both “to hear” and “to listen.” When God offers assurance to Moses in Exodus 3:18 it was in response to Moses’ objection that he had a verbal impairment. Hence, God tells Moses that his worry that others would not hear – that is, understand – him is no worry at all: Aaron will speak publicly on his behalf. But when the elders reject Moses’ report, it is because they did not accept it as credible. They refused to “listen” to it.


Philosophers generally hold the view that using the same word in different ways exposes any argument built on that difference to the fallacy of equivocation. (Lady Gaga is a star. A star is ball of hot gas. Therefore, Lady Gaga is a ball of hot gas. The word “star” is used in two different ways, resulting in a fallacious conclusion.) So the Kotzker puts himself at risk, logically speaking, by proposing this interpretation. But the Kotzker takes this risk in order to defend the concept of free will. If Exodus 3:18 is understood as a guarantee that God will make the elders accept Moses’ representation of his mission and of God’s intent then it renders the elders devoid of free will. Without free will there can be no human choice and therefore no human responsibility and accountability. This would make the Torah, that insists on both, meaningless. Hence, the only way to preserve free will is to interpret Exodus 3:18 as a statement about what the elders could understand rather than what they would necessarily accept.


For the Kotzker, the key outcome of Exodus 6:9 is not the failure of the elders to accept Moses’ representation but the affirmation that human beings are endowed with free will and thus accountable for every choice made.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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