Very often, I find myself unexpectedly in conversations discussing God’s omnipotence and omniscience in relation to our free will. While there are many wonderful and very deep works written on the subject, for the sake of time and energy, I generally boil it down to two sentences. “We have complete free will. Also, God knows which choices we are going to make and maintains hope that we will make the better choices.” The reasonable next question is always about punishment. There are plenty of moments in the Torah where one can point and show that the wrong decision brought punishment from God. And so, if God will punish us for our bad choices, is that actually free will? I maintain that the answer to that is still “yes.”
Free will does not mean an absence of consequences. We all make decisions all the time, knowing that some form of punishment might be the outcome, and we accept those risks. When I exceed the speed limit and receive a ticket, I am exercising my free will and I accept the possible consequence as I put my foot down hard. The authorities punish me for my action and maintain the hope that I will have learned something before the next time I get behind the wheel. Some days I do and some days I don’t, and sometimes it seems that those radar guns are kind of omnipotent, but I accept my responsibility and I understand that all action (or inaction) has consequences, and I always have choices.
Sometimes we actively bring those consequences onto ourselves. The people in the world who lived after the flood may have done just that. They said, “Come, let us build us a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” (Genesis 11:4). They were afraid that their inaction would cause them to be scattered, and so they made a choice to build the tower in order to maintain their unity. God responds to their act by saying, “Look—these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning (hachilam) of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach!” (Genesis 11:6). God decides to “confuse” their speech, and without the ability to communicate with each other they are scattered throughout the earth. As it turned out, their action brought exactly the situation they feared. It was because of their tower that they were scattered. The people were so concerned about being spread out that it is as if they were compelled to do the one thing that would cause this event to occur.
The midrash turns on the word hachilam. Rabbi Levi notes that this is an unusual form of the word l’hatchil, “to begin,” [from the Hebrew root tav-chet-lamed] and relates it to the word chalom, “dream.” He says, “In its foreboding, the generation that was to be dispersed was like a woman who said to her husband, ‘In a dream I saw you divorcing me.’ The husband replied, ‘Why only in a dream? Here is your bill of divorce—a real one’ ” (B’reishit Rabbah 23:7).
I do believe that so often in life we are able to bring our hopes and dreams to fruition. The start of that is often through the brave and courageous act of voicing those dreams. Of course, saying what you hope out loud is just the first step to making dreams come true, but it is one of the most important. If we cannot say what we want out loud, I believe it is nearly impossible to ever achieve it. But Rabbi Levi points to the other side of that here too. He suggests that by voicing what we fear we will also bring that fear to fruition. In this case, he points to the woman’s fear that is realized merely by her mentioning it to her husband. It makes me wonder about the rest of the story, because it is hard to believe that’s all there is to it. Does the husband interpret the wife’s use of the word “dream” to mean fantasy rather than a dream dreamt while asleep? They are such different things. If she meant “fantasy,” then the husband acted on what he believed his wife was asking for. If she meant a dream she had while asleep, then she can’t really be held responsible for such a dream. But, she can be held responsible for mentioning the dream to her husband. By voicing the dream she suggested even accidentally that she might like that dream to be true.
If God is omniscient and omnipresent in the ways we so often hope, wouldn’t God then know what we want, and if God loved us, wouldn’t God help bring those things to fruition? Of course the answer to that is “no.” We have considerable power over our own lives. We are able to choose every day. Our choices are not just about good and evil—things would be much easier if that’s all they were. We can choose between red and yellow, we can choose to buy a house this year or next, to take this job or that. We have so many choices, so much free will; sometimes it seems like too much. We make our best choices when we look up and envision the future we hope to have and when we act in a way that will lead us to that future. I believe those are the choices God waits and hopes for us to make.
Our Mishkan T’filah1 prayer book has a reading in it that I adore for the Hodaah prayer: “We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.” When we act out of fear, like the people of Babel, we may bring those fears to fruition. When we act on a vision for the future, we may bring that future to fruition as well. Our first step on the path is to give voice to our vision. While we may hope to live more by our deeds than our words, what we say does matter. Let us dream (nachalom) and then begin (v’nat’chil) to build the future we desire.
1 Mishkan T’filah, ed., Elyse D. Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007], p. 257.
At the time of this writing in 2011, Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully served as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.