Freedom of Choice – Part 1/3

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In the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, known in English as The Ethics of the Fathers, one of the tractates of the Mishnah, we read the following teaching from Rabbi Akiva (which in our text is the 15th mishnah—teaching of the chapter):

Everything is foreseen,
Yet, freedom of choice is granted;
The world is judged with goodness,
And everything is according to the preponderance of action. 

The Ethics of the Fathers contains what are considered the fundamentals of human morality and nature that precede the Torah. It is customary to recite its six chapters in the summer months, beginning with the first Shabbat after Passover, immediately after the Shabbat Minchah service.

Indeed, even a cursory reading of these words reveal that they deal with one of the most difficult and perplexing of all religious topics, the seeming paradox between God’s omniscience vs. man’s freedom of choice. Maimonides, who addresses this paradox in length in his writings, writes that it contains the most important principles of Torah and could only have been said by someone as great as Rabbi Akiva.

In this short study, written in honor of the dedication of a new Torah scroll to Chabad of Albuquerque by our dear friend, Dr. Jeff Sollins, we will delve into the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s words using the methodologies of the inner dimension of the Torah—Kabbalah and Chassidut.

Chabad is an acronym that stands for the Hebrew words for “wisdom” (חָכְמָה ) “understanding” (בִּינַָה ) and “knowledge” (דַעַת ) the names of the intellectual sefirot—three of the Divine emanations of light, energy, and life-force by which God forms and fashions everything in creation. The sefirot constitute one of the most basic models in Jewish thought, particularly in the study of the inner dimension of the Torah, and we will be using them quite a bit as we advance through this study. Let us present the traditional graphical arrangement of the sefirot, if only to get a general sense about them:












However, because we are more interested with the content of Rabbi Akiva’s saying, we will leave basic concepts about the sefirot undefined, encouraging the interested reader to explore this topic through our basic text on Kabbalah.1

Before we begin let us say a few words about our methodology—the methodology of the study of the inner dimension of the Torah.

Building Mental Structures with Torah

Kabbalah and Chassidut seek to reveal our deepest essence, unite it with the Divine, and thus unlock our deepest potential as human beings. To do so we must be adept at using the infinite wisdom of the Torah’s inner dimension to find God’s signature, as it were, in every aspect of ourselves, and the world around us. The Talmud explains that the Almighty is like a painter who signs his name on every work he completes; God has signed His Name on every facet of the universe, regardless of how big or how small.

At times, God’s signature is one His holy Names. In our analysis of Rabbi Akiva’s words we will see that it is signed and sealed with God’s essential four-letter Name, Havayah is signed on it. Rabbi Akiva is considered the patron of Jewish mystical thought (he was the leader of the four Rabbis who entered the orchard,2 a euphemism for the inner dimension of the Torah). He was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai—the author of the Zohar’s—Rebbe. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that one of his most central sayings would be structured so that it would reflect God’s essential Name.

To reveal God’s signature, we will be using various models that carry one-to-one correspondence between them. When various models are seen to correspond to one another, the mind is calibrated as it were into Torah thinking. Ordering and analyzing the components of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching based on the model of God’s essential Name will prompt our minds to find ever-deeper levels of exploration and understanding of its meaning.

Perhaps the best way to understand the role of the model is to liken it to a key. This key is not for a physical lock but for opening still secured areas of the mind. Because of the nature of the mind, Kabbalistic models are always holographic. Once a Kabbalistic model is inserted into the mind, it acts like a key that has been inserted into a lock—a new door is opened. The mind opens and becomes aware of a new way to see the world and its inner structure. People, events, and places that had previously seemed dissociated and confusing, suddenly yield new levels of connection and meaning.

God’s Signature in Rabbi Akiva’s Saying

The four letters of Havayah correspond to the four sefirot, wisdom, understanding, beauty, and kingdom. The sefirah of beauty is considered representative of the sixsefirot from loving-kindness to foundation. The sefirah of crown corresponds to a fifth element in Havayah identified as the tip of the first letter, yud.
The full correspondence is thus:

letter of Havayah


קוצו של י (tip of yud)


י (yud)


ה (hei)


ו (vav)

loving-kindness thru foundation

ה (hei)


The mishnah from Rabbi Akiva quoted above divides neatly into four parts and constitute one of the clearest examples of how a four-part saying or verse in Torah corresponds with the four letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah also known as the Tetragrammaton. We will first write out the full correspondence in chart form and then proceed to discuss each row separately:

letter of Havayah


part of mishnah

י (yud)


Everything is foreseen

ה (hei)


Yet, freedom of choice is given

ו (vav)


The world is judged with goodness

ה (hei)


And everything is according to the preponderance of action

Wisdom: “Everything is Foreseen”

“Everything is foreseen” corresponds to the first letter of Havayah, the yud (י ), and to the sefirah of wisdom. One of the first identifications that one comes across regarding wisdom is that it is related to the sense of sight.3

Rashi explains that the word usually translated as “foreseen” simply means “sees.” According to his commentary, Rabbi Akiva is telling us that God sees everything, what a person does in public, and more importantly everything that he does in private, when supposedly no one is looking.4 Rashi’s explanation of this phrase implies that God also sees into our hearts and mind.5 By limiting the scope of the first statement to the present,Rashi circumvents Maimonides’ contradiction between God’s omniscience and human freedom of choice.

As noted above, in his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides explains that “foreseen” implies that God sees the future and therefore Rabbi Akiva’s statement presents an apparent contradiction with freedom of choice.6 It would seem that if God knows the future, His knowledge should determine our actions. This paradox lies at the heart of Jewish faith according to Maimonides and he deals with it even more extensively in his other works.7

In the end, Maimonides resorts to the following argument to explain the paradox: just as we cannot understand God Himself, so we cannot understand what it means that He knows all of our actions. Maimonides’ resolution of the paradox rests on faith; faith that God’s knowledge of our future actions does not force us to act in a certain way and that we continue to have free will in spite of his knowledge. From the verse: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways”8 Maimonides learns that there is an essential difference between God’s knowledge of reality and our knowledge of reality. Indeed, if His knowledge was similar to ours, there would indeed be a contradiction between His omniscience and our freedom of choice.

This is a good place to add that regarding this same verse, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways” the Alter Rebbe explains that the second part is a conditional statement on the first part. Meaning, that the verse is saying, When are your thoughts not like God’s thoughts? As long as your way is not God’s way! But, if you, within human limits, emulate God, then you will, within human limits, share God’s thoughts. You will see reality from God’s perspective. But, if you do not follow God’s way, you will not be able to understand what God is doing in the world. At the personal level, you will not be able to understand the reward and punishment that God is giving you in response to you actions and you will never be at peace with God.

But, as we will explain later in regard to the second part of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, meditating on knowing God leads eventually to an understanding of why God runs the world the way that He does.

Now, in Rabbi Akiva’s saying the adjective “foreseen” is written in its passive form. The same passive form of the word is also found in a similar saying by the sages “Everything is revealed and known to You.”9 The Maharal of Prague, the 17th century Torah scholar, in his commentary on the Mishnah titled Derech Chaim explains that the reason for the passive form is that there are certain actions that God does not want to see. These are negative actions. And so, God knows about them passively, without actively casting His gaze upon them. In other words, He does not engage His will when seeing these bad deeds.

So far, we have seen how the first part of the Rabbi Akiva’s mishnah corresponds to thesefirah of wisdom and the first letter of Havayah.

Understanding: “Yet, Freedom of Choice is granted”

The second part of Rabbi Akiva’s saying corresponds to the second letter of God’s essential Name, Havayahhei and to the sefirah of understanding.

In the Zohar, universal freedom is associated with the sefirah of understanding. The “World of Freedom”10 is a phrase that the Zohar uses to describe the sefirah of understanding. It refers to the “World to Come,” where human beings will enjoy eternal freedom from the evil inclination and therefore freedom from judgment. Thus, we can liken our freedom of choice to a shadow cast from the World to Come on our own reality.11 In the World to Come, absolute freedom is a result of God having done away with the evil inclination, leaving us free to follow Him without any inhibitions. In our present reality, freedom of choice reveals a higher level of our self, where we are free to choose between following our evil inclination and ignoring it. The more a person connects to and strengthens this higher level of self, the more he is living even now in the consciousness of the World to Come.

Beauty: “The World is Judged with Goodness”

The Zohar states that wisdom and understanding, or more generally, the father and mother principles, are always united.12 Their unification gives birth to children, represented by the emotive faculties (the 6 sefirot from loving-kindness to foundation) and the sefirah of kingdom, which in Rabbi Akiva’s teaching correspond to the third and fourth parts. Thus, when one unifies the first two parts of Rabbi Akiva’s saying, “Everything is foreseen, yet, freedom of choice is granted” one merits giving birth to the second half of his saying, “And the world is judged with goodness and everything is according to the preponderance of action.”

Maimonides explains that the third part indeed logically follows the first two parts and Rabbi Akiva’s intent is to say that even though God foresees everything, freedom of chioce has been granted, and therefore it is a good thing that God judges the world. Meaning, that God is justified in judging people because people have freedom of choice.

And yet, God’s judgment is not harsh judgment. Both Maimonides and Rashi agree here that the meaning is that God judges the world mercifully (the inner quality of the sefirah of beauty, the central emotive faculty). Even though the entire concept of judgment is related to the left axis of the sefirot (specifically the sefirah of might), which is considered harsh and strong, still, God’s judgment is always leaning to the right side, towards loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is known as “good.”

As we continue our study, we will see that the more we focus our thoughts—the intellectual powers of wisdom and especially understanding—on the positive, the more we give birth to feelings that indeed God judges everything mercifully and in a positive light. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often state the Yiddish phrase, Tracht gut, vet sein gut, which captures this idea.

Kingdom: “And Everything is According to the Preponderance of Action”

Finally the fourth part of Rabbi Akiva’s saying, “And everything is according to the preponderance of action,” corresponds to the fourth letter of Havayah, the final hei. The final letter of Havayah represents the sefirah of kingdom and the World of Action, so the parallel is very clear because the final statement is about action. Still, let us take this opportunity to go deeper into the meaning of this final part of the teaching.

According to Maimonides, this statement means that people’s nature can only change through repeated actions. The famous example that Maimonides gives is of a person giving charity. If he gives a large sum, say a million dollars all at once, this may not open his heart at all—it will not lead to a change in his character. But, if the same sum is given in smaller amounts, time after time, then the person’s character will change and his heart will always be open to charity. In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains this. Even though the amount given to charity each time is smaller, it is the act of giving that counts most. Giving itself cleanses the psyche. The same is true of any character trait that a person would like to fix. Many repetitions of a rectifying action are needed in order to make an impression, by cleansing the psyche. Even if a person gives a large sum, but only once, it will not have as strong an impression on his psyche. The repetition makes the difference.

The Alter Rebbe13 takes Maimonides’ principle and applies it universally. He explains that the psyche of the entire world is the Shechinah—the Divine Presence. Since the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, the Shechinah is fallen and covered in dirt, as it were,14 since the Shechinah is the Congregation of Israel. To raise the Shechinah and to restore it to its original glory requires many acts of kindness.

Sometimes people imagine that it is possible that one particularly great and extraordinary act could rectify the world and bring the Mashiach. But, the Alter Rebbe is saying that in principle there is no such possibility. Great and amazing acts of kindness that broke through all the barriers of separation in the world have already been performed, and yet the Mashiach has still not come. Instead, the Shechinah will permanently be raised out of the dirt only by a preponderance of numerous acts, even small acts of kindness, executed by many people.15 Every single mitzvah, every single act of kindness, even the smallest, cleanses the Shechinah further and when the necessary amount is complete, the Divine Presence will be restored.

Understanding preponderance as a measure of quantity fits one of the most basic Kabbalistic models, in which the sefirah of kingdom corresponds to quantity:

letter of Havayah















But, there are commentaries that dispute the identification of the Hebrew word that we have translated as “preponderance” with quantity. Instead, they argue that this word (רֹב ) refers to quality.16 According to this understanding, the last part of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching should be translated as, “And everything depends on the quality of the act.” Naturally, both points of view are valid. We find that in the Bible, this Hebrew word variously means both “many” (quantity) and “great” (quality).

Those commentaries that relate the impact of action on its quality give two different definitions to quality. The first is that the quality of an act is proportional to the amount in which it goes against the grain of your natural character. In other words, how difficult it was for you to overcome your innate nature in order to perform this act. This is calleditkafya in Chassidut, meaning self-subjugation. If we pay close attention, we will see that Maimonides’ interpretation also contains a dependence on itkafya. Without the going against our innate nature, even numerous acts performed thousands of times will not change our character—they can be likened to breaking down an open door. In other words, if a person is stingy by nature—this is how God created him—for him giving a large amount of money is very, very difficult. Therefore, for him it could be that with one single act—given the difficulty of performing that act—he will forever be judged favorably.

The second definition of quality is as proportional to the amount of intent a person has when performing an act. The point here is not that it is difficult to perform the act because it runs against the grain of my natural countenance, but that it is difficult to do things with meaning and conviction. As the sages say, “A mitzvah without intent is like a body without a soul.” Even though action is the main thing in the end, still the impact of the action depends on the inner experience

This second definition of quality lends itself to various gradations and levels. The Rebbe of Komarna for instance explains that a person may have intellectual intent when performing a good deed, but may lack emotive excitement. The highest quality of a deed is when it is done with excitement and lowliness, the inner quality of the sefirah of kingdom.

Even though the interpretation of the fourth part of the saying as relating to quality do not fit with the model presented earlier in which kingdom is the measure of quantity, still they relate to the quality of an action or deed, and the World of Action is the level of consciousness associated with the sefirah of kingdom.

So far, we have seen how Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is signed with God’s essential Name,Havayah. We now have a basic model that corresponds its four parts with the four letters of Havayah. The power of analyzing something in this fashion, by corresponding it to a well-known model (in our case the four letters of Havayah) is that we can then interpolate to other models that share the same structure.17 In the next part of our study, we will interpolate Rabbi Akiva’s mishnah onto the Hebrew calendar. This will provide us with even deeper insight into its meaning and application.

Based on a lecture given on the 8th of Iyar, 5758 in Jerusalem

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1What You Need to Know About Kabbalah.

2Chagigah 14b.

3. For instance: 1) The Torah calls the sages, the wise men of the congregation, “the eyes of the congregation” (Numbers 15:24), 2) One of the sages’ sayings is “Who is wise? He who foresees that which is about to happen” (Tamid 32a).

4. אם יסתר איש במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה' . Note the BST’s unique explanation of this verse.

5. בוחן כליות ולב .

6. One of the clearest examples that God knows the future is from the first of Jeremiah’s prophecies: “Before I [God] formed you in the womb I have known you…”

7. In his legal work, see Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 5. In his Guide for the Perplexed, see part 3 chs. 16 and on.

8. Isaiah 55:8.

9Berachot 17a, and elsewhere.

10Zohar II, 186a.

11. Interestingly though, because we are presently not free of our evil inclination, in our present reality freedom of choice predicates the possibility of Divine judgment.

12. See Zohar III, 4a.

13Igeret Hakodesh 21.

14. The Shechinah is in many ways the symbol for the feminine aspect of the Divine. The metaphor of its fall among other things, implies that the feminine is not able to play its proper role. This is manifest in the fallen state of physical reality all the way from the cosmic level (the light of the moon waxes and wanes) to the national (the Jewish people depend on other nations for their welfare, etc.) to the personal (man and woman are not equal).

15. In Chassidic terminology, each act that cleanses the Divine Presence is called, “unification” (יִחוּד ).

16. See also Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Bei’urim Lepirkei Avot, pp. 176-7.

17. For an example of how this method is used by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, see Likutei Sichot, vol. 6, parshat Yitro.

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