It is commonly accepted that Judaism teaches free choice. Human beings can choose their behaviors and are responsible for those choices. The source for this teaching is traced directly to the Torah:
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live— by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands and holding fast to Him (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Maimonides, in his codification of Jewish law and belief, argues strongly for the primacy of individual responsibility:
Do not let enter your mind that which is said by the stupid people among the Gentiles and the boorish among the Jews: that God decrees from the start whether a person is to be righteous or wicked (Laws of Teshuvah 5:2).
Maimonides claims that, even so, everything in the world is done according to God’s will; at the same time, the responsibility for our deeds is given to us. How can this be, asks Maimonides? Just as it is God’s will that the natural world operates in a certain way, it is also God’s will that the ability of human beings to direct their actions is placed in their own hands (Laws of Repentance, 5:4). Still, Maimonides has to account for the Torah’s inconsistency in the matter of free will. He has to admit that when the book of Exodus speaks of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, one is forced to conclude that in certain instances God does intervene to limit human choice.
In this week’s parashah, in the book of Genesis, we are faced with a different kind of problem regarding free choice: the view that human action is freely chosen, but its result is determined by God. Joseph, after having concealed from his brothers who he really is, at last reveals himself to them. He immediately anticipates that they might fear revenge from him, and tells them: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:5,7-8).
Similarly, after their father’s death, Joseph tells his brothers: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on this verse, explains that “God may use Man’s evil purposes as the instrument of ultimate good, beyond the knowledge, desire or realization of the human agents involved. What may seem to be a chance succession of disparate incidents is in reality a process, so that what has happened and what is unfolding take on meaning when viewed from the perspective of God’s time.” Sarna bolsters this view of biblical theology with several quotes from the book of Proverbs including, “A man may plot out his course, but it is the Lord who directs his steps (16:9)” and “Many designs are in a man’s mind, but it is the Lord’s plan that is accomplished” (19:21).
What emerges from an examination of the Torah’s statements and stories is that it does not speak with one voice on the question of free will. The Torah’s lack of absolutism on this point is reflected in the way many Jews over the centuries have conducted themselves. The standard mode of operation was: Do the mitzvot as a matter of purposeful choice, yet do not presume to know the result of all your actions. The lesson that Joseph teaches would appear to apply not so much to an individual as to the nation. Joseph claimed that God arranged for his family to be saved from famine in Canaan. It can reasonably be extrapolated from this claim that in the Torah’s view, God was concerned not just with a particular family but with the nation that would eventually develop from it. In other words, it was God who guided the formation of the Israelite people.
It has been a consistent strain of Jewish thought that God, on a level beyond and separate from individual human choice, continues to guide the destiny of the Jewish people. It is difficult otherwise to explain how a people detached from their homeland for so many years and persecuted in the lands of their dispersion could have survived. But survival is only the beginning of the story. That is the legacy of Joseph. The larger question — that Joseph did not ask, and could not have been expected to ask — is for what purpose did God ensure the family’s survival. It is a question Jews today have to ask. We have survived as a people for a long time. It might be because of human historical factors, and it might be because of a divine plan. Whatever the cause, mere survival is not the goal. The need to fulfill a mission is the reason for that survival. The lack of a sense of mission imperils that survival. One of the most pressing questions for Jews to ask today is: What exactly is our task, and how do we best fulfill the words in Deuteronomy: to love the Lord our God, heeding God’s commandments and holding fast to God?