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Vaera 5764

Parshat Vaera
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
(Isaiah 66:1-24)
January 24, 2004

The translation of Biblical verses and Biblical ideas is often a difficult task. This is made clear in the third verse of the special haftarah for Shabbat – Rosh Hodesh read this week. The words of this verse could possibly be translated: “He that kills an ox is as if he slew a man. He that sacrifices a lamb, as if he broke a dog’s neck; He who offers a meal offering, as if he has offered swine blood; He who makes a offering of frankincense, as if he blessed an idol; since they have chosen their own way and their soul delights in their abominations so will I choose to mock them.” (Isaiah 66:3-4 according to the Old JPS translation) This final translation (to which the continuation of the verse has been added) would seem to imply that if a person performs a religious act insincerely, that act is comparable to a terrible sin. This misconception is corrected in the New JPS translation: “As for those who slaughter oxen and slay humans, who sacrifice sheep and immolate dogs, who present as an oblation the blood of swine, who offer incense and worship false gods – just as they have chosen their ways and take pleasure in their abominations so will I choose to mock them…”

This translation makes more sense because it makes the message of this verse comprehensible, namely, that people bear responsibility for their choices. This idea, which seems so patently Jewish, has also had a complicated history. Rabbi Akiva is famed for the following anomalous statement: “All is foreseen but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:19) This statement not only contradicts, at least in part, the verse from Isaiah, but it also seems self-contradictory. How is it possible for God to have foreknowledge of our actions while still allowing for freedom of action.

Maimonides took up the cudgels of this dilemma, using the verse from Isaiah in his argument: “If God predetermined whether a person would be righteous or wicked, or a person’s predisposition or beliefs and concerns or actions, like some fool’s believe [Maimonides doesn’t mince words], then for what purpose would God have given us commands by way of the prophets: ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’ ; ‘Correct your ways’ or ‘Don’t continue in your wicked ways’. All of this would make no sense if God had already predetermined from birth. What purpose would there be for the Torah? How could justice be demanded from the wicked or righteousness be rewarded? “The Judge of the whole world will not do justly?”… Don’t be dumbfounded and say: ‘How can a person do what he wants when nothing can be done in this world without God’s permission…? Know that these two conditions can coexist. How so? Just as the Creator set up the laws of nature [Maimonides gives examples.] So, too, God desires that humans should have free will without being coerced. Each person is endowed with the ability to do as s/he desires. This is why each person is judged according to his/her actions: if the person is worthy, s/he will be rewarded and if a person sins, s/he will be punished,… as the prophet says: ‘for they have chosen their ways’ (Isaiah 66:3) Know that you have the ability to choose your actions and in the future you will be judged for your actions.” (adapted from Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:4)

Maimonides resolved Rabbi Akiva’s riddle. He defines “All is foreseen” to mean that God has set forth the ground rules for how all human beings behave. God intended for human beings to have free will and to use it responsibly.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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