Preserving Free Will at Matan Torah

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Likutei Moharan 190 and Moshe’s Extra Day

In Parashat Yitro, we read the account of Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. In Parashat Va’etchanan which relates what took place forty years later, Moshe Rabbeinu adds some details that weren’t mentioned in the original account in Shemot. Breaking into the middle of the story, Moshe related the words of the people and Hashem’s response (Devarim 5:24-25): קְרַב אַתָּה וּשְׁמָע אֵת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר יְיָ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וְאַתְּ  תְּדַבֵּר אֵלֵינוּ אֵת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר יְיָ אֱלֹקֵינוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְנוּ וְעָשִׂינוּ׃ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְיָ אֶת־קוֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶם בְּדַבֶּרְכֶם אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ אֵלַי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת־קוֹל דִּבְרֵי הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבְּרוּ אֵלֶיךָ הֵיטִיבוּ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ (You get close and hear everything that Hashem our G-d will say, and you speak to us everything that Hashem our G-d will speak to you, and we will hear and we will do. And Hashem heard the sound of your words that you spoke to me, and Hashem said to me, I have heard the sound of words of this people which they have spoken to you; all that they have spoken is good).

Why did Hashem considered it good that the people didn’t want Him to speak to them directly but rather only to Moshe?

The Rambam wrote in Mishneh Torah that free will has been given to everyone (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1): רְשׁוּת לְכָל אָדָם נְתוּנָה (Choice is given to everyone). But what exactly is free will [bechirah]? It is the capacity to make a choice between at least two options, a choice that is ‘free’ from coercion and independent of anything or anyone else. As further explained by the Rambam there: אִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ טוֹבָה וְלִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ וְאִם רָצָה לְהַטּוֹת עַצְמוֹ לְדֶרֶךְ רָעָה וְלִהְיוֹת רָשָׁע הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ (If one wants to incline himself to the good path and to become a tzaddik, the choice is his; and if he wants to incline himself to the bad path and to become a rasha, the choice is his). Therefore, we see that it is a fundamental aspect of creation that Hashem designed the world so that we would have this kind of bechirah. Most of us are familiar with this aspect of bechirah. But there is more to it than that.

We understand what bechirah is, but do we know where it is found? Not where it is found in the sense of internally in our minds, i.e. in our ‘will’, but rather where it is found in terms of circumstances of life. Let’s explain.

R’ Nachman of Breslov stated a profound truth (Chayei Moharan 197): כִּי הָעִקָּר הָעֲבוֹדָה שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּכָל דָּבָר מַה שֶּׁמַּנִּיחִין לָאָדָם עַל הַבְּחִירָה שֶׁלּוֹ הַיְנוּ שֶׁנִּשְׁאַר הַדָּבָר עַל דַּעְתּוֹ וְאֵין בָּזֶה מִצְוָה הַיְנוּ שֶׁאֵין מְצַוִּין אוֹתוֹ עַל אוֹתוֹ הַדָּבָר שׁוּם מִצְוָה וְאֵין אוֹמְרִים לוֹ כְּלָל לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן רַק שֶׁנִּשְׁאַר הַדָּבָר עַל דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה כְּפִי מַה שֶּׁיִּבְחַר לוֹ (The essence of the avodah that is in everything is that man is left to his own free will [bechirah], i.e. that the matter is left to his own understanding and there is no specific mitzvah, that is, they don’t instruct him on that specific thing on what to do and they don’t tell him anything about what to do; rather, the matter is left to his own understanding and he must act according to what he must choose for himself). Not only that, but anyone who learns Gemara (even casually) will realize that it is much deeper than that. Even when Hashem has given us a specific command, there are still aspects that remain unclear, and these unclear aspects require us to consider deeply what Hashem really wants of us in a given situation. Another way to put it is that Hashem purposely built into every mitzvah an element of ambiguity. But why? It is so that we would have bechirah, for bechirah is found dafka in the place of ambiguity.

A quintessential example of this type of bechirah is expressed by R’ Yosi (Shabbat 87a): יוֹם אֶחָד הוֹסִיף מֹשֶׁה מִדַּעְתּוֹ (Moshe added one day based on his understanding). What is he talking about, and what does this have to do with bechirah?

Have you ever read the Torah and found yourself asking, What does the beginning of this pasuk have to do with the end of the pasuk? Or maybe, What does this pasuk have to do with the one that came before it? Here’s an example from Parashat Yitro. Moshe is relaying messages back and forth between the people and Hashem about the upcoming event of Matan Torah. It is in this context that the Torah says (Shemot 19:8-9): וַיַּעֲנוּ כׇל־הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְיָ נַעֲשֶׂה וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְיָ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם־בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם וַיַּגֵּד מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְיָ (And all the people answered together and said, All that Hashem spoke we will do. And Moshe brought back the words of the people to Hashem. And Hashem said to Moshe, Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud so that the people will hear when I speak to you and believe you for ever. And Moshe told the words of the people to Hashem). R’ Nachman says about this in Likutei Moharan 190: וְהוּא תָּמוּהַּ וְנִפְלָא מְאֹד (This is very surprising and amazing!). What is he talking about? What is so amazing about these two pesukim?

Let’s summarize the order of events. First, the people told Moshe that they would do whatever Hashem says. Second, Moshe relates these words back to Hashem. Third, Hashem responds by saying that He’ll just speak to Moshe. But wait a minute. Isn’t that odd? The people say that they’ll do whatever Hashem says, and then Hashem responds by saying that He’ll only speak to Moshe! That seems very strange. Think about it. Let’s say your young child comes running up to you with a big smile on his face, happy as can be, and says, “Daddy, Daddy, I love you so much; I’ll do whatever you want!”, wouldn’t it be bizarre if you turned away from him and spoke to him from that point on through a middleman? Clearly, this requires explanation.

Fourth and finally, Moshe tells Hashem what the people said. But, hold on! Didn’t Moshe already tell Hashem what they said? We could propose that the people said ‘something else’ to Moshe, and it was this ‘something else’ that Moshe said back to Hashem. But that doesn’t make much sense for at least two reasons. First, the pasuk doesn’t say that Moshe went back to speak to the people in the interim. And second, even if Moshe went back to the people (even though the pasuk didn’t say so), the pasuk doesn’t even tell us what the people said. So what’s the point of the pasuk telling us that Moshe told Hashem what the people said if we don’t know what they said? So this also requires explanation.

How do we make sense out of these two pesukim?

When the people said כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְיָ נַעֲשֶׂה (All that Hashem spoke we will do), they were voicing their objection. They were claiming that if Hashem spoke directly to them, their bechirah would go right out the window. These are the words of R’ Nachman in L.M. 190: כִּי אֵין שׁוּם בְּחִירָה שֶׁלֹּא לַעֲשׂוֹת מֵאַחַר שֶׁיָּצָא מִפִּי השם (For there is no bechirah not to do, since it it was a statement that issued from the mouth of Hashem). The people held (and apparently, they were correct) that it would be impossible for ambiguity to remain if such an event were to take place. The magnitude of the revelation would be so intense that it would remove all ambiguity, and along with it, all of their bechirah. Therefore, if they were to hear the voice of Hashem directly speaking to them they would lose their bechirah. After all, how could people even think of transgressing if they were exposed to such a perfect and clear vision? They would be like malachim who, practically speaking, have very little, if any, bechirah. And so it says וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְיָ (And Moshe brought back the words of the people to Hashem). The people were not going to allow Hashem to eliminate their bechirah without putting forth their objection. Moshe then told Hashem that the people were not at all satisfied with the arrangement and that something would need to change.

Hashem responded by saying that he would speak only to Moshe. This wasn’t a rejection of the people (or the little child in our analogy). It was Hashem providing a solution for their concern. If Hashem wouldn’t address them directly, they would become spectators. The clarity of their revelation would be reduced and they’d be able to retain their bechirah. This is why Hashem considered it good that the people didn’t want Him to speak to them directly but rather only to Moshe.

This explains why the Aseret Dibrot were spoken to ‘you’ in the singular rather than to ‘you’ in the plural. As it says in L.M. 190: שֶׁלֹּא אֲדַבֵּר הַדִּבְּרוֹת רַק עִמְּךָ לְבַד כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ וְכוּ’, וְכֵן כֻּלָּם, וְלֹא לְנֹכַח לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וְהֵם רַק יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּדַבְּרִי עִמְּךָ (I will only speak the commandments to you alone, like it is written, ‘I am Hashem your [sing.] G-d…’, ‘You [sing.] shall not have…’, and so it was with all of them. I will not address Yisrael; rather, they will only be able to listen when I speak to you).

But where does all this leave Moshe? If you think about it, you will realize that he was now in the exact same position that the people were in a few moments earlier. And that’s the meaning of וַיַּגֵּד מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְיָ (And Moshe told the words of the people to Hashem). The pasuk is accurate and hasn’t left out anything of the story. Moshe didn’t leave Hashem’s presence in the interim, and the people didn’t say ‘something else’ that Moshe told Hashem. Moshe merely responded to Hashem’s solution by articulating the exact same claim that the people originally had against Hashem: “If you speak directly to me, then I’ll have no bechirah, and I’ll be compelled to do what You say! Do you really want to eliminate my bechirah?”

Therefore, Hashem came up with a solution for Moshe in order for him to retain his bechirah. What did He do? The next pasuk says (Shemot 19:10): וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל־הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר (And Hashem said to Moshe, Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow…). How was this a solution for Moshe?

R’ Nachman provides the answer (L.M. 190): וְלֹא צִוָּה לוֹ הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ רַק שְׁנֵי יָמִים וּמֹשֶׁה הוֹסִיף יוֹם אֶחָד מִדַּעְתּוֹ וְכִוֵּן לְדַעַת הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כִּי כֵן הָיְתָה דַּעְתּוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ כְּמוֹ שֶׁבֶּאֱמֶת לֹא נִתְּנָה תּוֹרָה עַד שְׁלשָׁה יָמִים (Hashem, may He be blessed, only commanded him two days, and Moshe added one day based on his own understanding, and he understood the intent of Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu, for that was His intent for, in truth, the Torah was given only after three days). Where does R’ Nachman get this idea from? It is as we quoted above (Shabbat 87a): אָמַר לְךָ רַבִּי יוֹסֵי: יוֹם אֶחָד הוֹסִיף מֹשֶׁה מִדַּעְתּוֹ (R’ Yosi will say to you, Moshe added one day based on his understanding). Although the Rabbis disagreed with R’ Yosi about this, R’ Yosi’s opinion is supported by a Baraisa: דְּתַנְיָא שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה מִדַּעְתּוֹ וְהִסְכִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עִמּוֹ הוֹסִיף יוֹם אֶחָד מִדַּעְתּוֹ וּפֵירַשׁ מִן הָאִשָּׁה וְשָׁבַר אֶת הַלּוּחוֹת (It was taught, Moshe did three things based on his understanding and Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu agreed with him: He added one day, he separated from his wife, and he broke the tablets).

But where exactly was the ambiguity? The plan was for Matan Torah to take place on Shabbat morning. Two days of purification was insufficient because it was still three days to Shabbat (according to R’ Yosi). Therefore, Moshe rightly understood that Hashem wanted him to add one more day. But it would be his choice. Hashem didn’t command three days. By adding the third day of sanctification, the people (including himself) were able to receive the Torah. And that one day changed the course of history!

Interestingly, it comes out that the bechirah of Moshe was different than that of the people. The bechirah of Moshe was dafka whether or not to receive the Torah, whereas the bechirah of the people (including us today) was whether or not to do what Hashem commanded Moshe.

What’s the point of all of this? We are taught to emulate the middot of Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu. So which specific middah have we learned about in this essay that we should work on emulating? The middah of being sensitive to the concerns and needs of others, of not coercing others to conform to our will, and certainly of not imposing our will on others. Instead, we must learn to accommodate others—our friends, our employees, our spouses, even our children and grandchildren. So let’s be careful to do all we can to help preserve the bechirah of others (even as Hashem did), for without bechirah we’re not much different than animals.

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