The rabbis taught that free will was suspended at the time of revelation. "The Holy One held the mountain over them like a bucket and warned them: If you accept the Torah — good. And if not — here you will be buried” (Shabbat 88a). There is an interesting Talmudic debate regarding how the Israelites responded to the intensity of this revelation at Sinai.
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: With every single statement that emanated from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He, the souls of the Jewish people departed (from their bodies), as it is stated: “my soul departed as He spoke.” Now, since their souls departed after the first statement, how could they have received the second statement? (G-d) brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead in the future, and He resurrected them, as it said: “A generous rain did You lavish, O God, when Your heritage was weary You established it firmly” (Shabbat 88b).
However, the rabbis continue and a disparate encounter is described:
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: With every single statement that emanated from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He, the Jewish people retreated twelve miles, and the ministering angels helped them to totter back, as it is said “The angles of legions totter, they totter. Do not read this yidodun (they lead) but as yedadun (help others to lead).
There is a distinct paradox evident in the account of the Israelites approaching the Divine Superpower. The first narrative tells a story of love (a return back to G-d). The second relates more to fear (backing away with awe).
Perhaps the most interesting and pertinent dynamic that reveals itself in this exploration is that of human essence vs. human will. In the first case, human nature does not allow for a full encounter with G-d; the experience would be far too overwhelming and the implications/responsibilities would be exceedingly vast. In the second case, the Israelites do not die, but they back away willingly – the encounter with G-d is simply too overwhelming to bear. Furthermore, in the first narrative, the Israelites have lost free will as they are being forced to accept the Torah. In the second narrative, there is a clear demonstration of free will.
Amidst revelation and the intensity of encountering the Divine, most commentators suggest that the Israelites experiencing revelation either died during it or that they continued to back away (as we saw). The Ramban, Nachmanides, however, suggests that G-d forced intimacy at the giving of the 10 commandments:
“And the nation saw the thunder…and they said to Moshe ‘You speak with us, and we will listen, but let G-d not speak with us, lest we die.”’ The opinion of the commentators is that this is after the giving of the Torah…But this is not my opinion, since it says here “Let G-d not speak with us,” and it doesn’t say “again.” …And what appears correct in my eyes , regarding this section and the order of events, is that this verse is before the giving of the Torah….And the order of the events is that “in the morning there was thunder and lightning…and the sound of a shofar quite loud” (19:16) and Moshe strengthened their hearts “and took them out towards G-d, and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (19:17). When they were there at the foot of the mountain looking and standing, G-d descended on to the top of the mountain in fire (19:18) and the mountain itself trembled, (19:18) and the sound of the shofar grew exceedingly great (19:19) then “the nation was afraid, and was shaken backwards and stood from afar.” (20:16) farther (back) than the border. Then they said to Moshe that G-d should not speak to them at all lest they die. But Moshe strengthened them, and said to them, “don’t be afraid” (20:17) and they listened to him, “and then stood far off” (20:18) and Moshe approached the thick darkness (20:18). But he didn’t enter. And then G-d spoke the 10 commandments. And after the Ten Commandments, (as it says in Deut. 5:20), the heads of the tribes and the elders drew near to him, and said to him “If we again hear the voice of the Lord, our G-d, we will die….You should draw close, and hear all that the Lord our G-d will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our G-d will speak to you, and we will hear and we will do (5:24). And G-d agreed to their words, and said “They have said well, and all that they have spoken.”
From the Ramban it seems that G-d forced an intense intimacy with the Israelites that surpassed human capacity. However, this imposed intimacy was not inflicted as a lover (for forced intimacy would be violent) but is comparable to the intimacy experienced with a parent (where a parent longs for closeness at times more than a child can handle). During the overpowering and intense revelation of the Torah the Israelites still retained their faculties and ability to exercise their will, however, in the presence of the Divine they were overcome with fear and only strengthened through the encouragement of Moshe.
Consider a teaching from Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler on the topic of free will:
When two armies are locked in battle, the place where the struggle takes place is called the front line. This line is drawn at the place where the two forces meet. On either side, there is territory that belongs to that side and is thus not the location of battle. The front line moves and changes, but battle, generally speaking, occurs only where the two sides meet. Our moral choices can be thought of in a similar way. There are decisions that we have made in our lives so many times that they are no longer decisions. It is obvious to us that we will respond in particular ways to particular events. Those choices are within our territory. There are also choices we have never had to make and likely will never have to make. They are beyond the realm of our experience. They are firmly out of our territory. The place where these territories meet is the place of choice – bechirah. On the spectrum of what we know to be ethical and what we know to be unethical, we make choices only at the bechirah point. This is the point where our values come into conflict and thus the choices are not obvious. Each individual’s bechirah point is unique, and it moves as we grow and change. By recognizing the bechirah points in our lives, we are able to set our sights on expanding our moral territory and thus becoming better people” (Strive for Truth, 52-57).
Rabbi Dessler’s teaching eloquently explains that an individual’s moral choices are uniquely her own and eventually become so commonplace throughout life that they no longer become decisions, but instincts. However, Rabbi Dessler continues and discusses the limits of individual free will when he explains there are choices that are beyond our realm of experience and that we have never made these choices nor will we ever have to. These types of choices are beyond our realm of experience and surely can relate to the Israelite encounter with the Divine on Sinai. Though the Israelites possessed free will, their encounter with G-d was unlike anything they had experienced or could comprehend and thus their decision was not made freely, as we understand free will to operate.
For a different perspective consider Emmanuel Levinas and his understanding of free-will as it relates to the Divine. Levinas suggests that the first thing G-d does after creating humanity is creating human limits (law). Through this order, humans are able to give meaning to the world. Ethics precedes meaning. The command allows for ethics since one is already obligated prior to the making of meaning. Levinas, here, suggests that after G-d created man he commanded and taught him limits, influenced his understanding and interaction with the world, and thus enabled man to give meaning to the world and the beings that occupy it. So through Divine education and ethical instruction man was able to make informed decisions regarding moral choices and ethics, still, though, of his own volition.
There are times we must encounter truth in a transformative way (so transformative it is as if we were compelled) before we can truly choose it. We must seek out moral transformation in this way to maximize the potential of our free will. Further, we should embrace a sense of obligation that precedes our own will and understanding. Our impulses should be cultivated to make service and giving a core part of our being. We move our responsibility from volition to nature, from choice to instinct.
Clearly the issue of free will amidst revelation and the intensity of encountering the Divine, most aptly illustrated through the Israelites encounter with G-d on Sinai, will never be completely understood. Nor is there a consensus, as has been demonstrated, regarding the Israelite experience. However, as Levinas writes, halakhah provides Divine guidance, through which we are empowered with free will, and enables us to give meaning to the world and seek out the holy. Let us be inspired by the greatness and intensity of G-d’s relationship and improve ourselves so as to fulfill our ethical responsibilities.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”