Fate and Freewill

Fate and Freewill

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

(Excerpted from Rabbi Lyon’s sermon June 3, 2022)

When summer heat in the Middle East fell on the rabbis-of-old, they studied lighter texts and considered less weighty matters. They devoted themselves to Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, whose Jewish folk-wisdom was perfect for the hot season.

Pirkei Avot, a tractate of Mishnah, contains familiar folk lessons, such as Hillel’s famous teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Another important teaching offers wisdom about fate and freewill. In Pirkei Avot 3:15, we learn, “All is foreseen yet freewill is granted; and by mercy is the universe judged, yet all is according to the amount of deeds.”

We’re inclined to ask: If God is all-powerful, as traditional Judaism teaches, then what difference does freewill make? Judaism doesn’t conclude that our future is only a matter of fate. We’re held personally accountable for our deeds; that is, we have moral responsibility to choose to do good or evil and to be held personally accountable for those choices.

Rabbi Haninah (1st c Jewish scholar) taught, that in spite of the fact that many aspects of a person’s life are predetermined — we are only just so smart, so simple, so tall, so short, so even-tempered, etc., God did not predetermine our moral development. Our moral development is entirely up to us. Our control over this is not God’s weakness; rather it’s consistent with the covenantal relationship God makes with us. In Deuteronomy (10:12) we read, “All I am asking of you is that you revere your God, to walk in God’s ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul…”        

In this Mishnah, we conclude that it is by the quantity of our good deeds, mitzvot, that we will ultimately be judged. It is not by what we say or promise to do; but by what we do will we be judged by others, and, of course, by God.

What if we do a lifetime of good deeds? Well, then we would hope that we’d reap the rewards. And what if we’ve failed too often to do good deeds? Judaism leaves room even for the evildoers to repent on their deathbeds and to be forgiven. Such is the power of forgiveness of the human soul; not to be condemned, but to be lifted up in this world, even at the final moment on the edge of the boundary between life and death.

Judaism’s brilliance has sustained us throughout history. Judaism’s compassion and judgment have guided us well by providing us room for constant human improvement. And Reform Judaism urges us to learn all we can from every discipline while it holds us morally accountable to adhere to the mitzvot, the commandments that deepen our covenant with God, and which relate our sense of life and worth to the Creator in Whose presence we stand every day.

Long ago, when the rabbi was teaching his brilliant students our verse, “All is foreseen but freewill is given,” one of his disciples asked him, “Do you believe that?” The rabbi replied, “Do I have a choice?”

Friends, as the world grapples with political and economic crises, and unthinkable destruction of life and property, Judaism calls on us to accept our God-given skills and abilities as our fate, and to use them in moral ways to affect change in the part of the world we occupy while we are here.  May we all find our strength to bear up and do good.


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