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Nature and Free Will


When G-d commanded the earth to bring forth trees that taste like their fruit, the earth failed to comply. Was that a sin? How could the earth not have acted according to G-d’s Will? How did G-d’s Word not create the reality as it always does? What happened when the earth was created? Does the inanimate world have free choice? Do animals, plants, and stars have free will? What creates physical and spiritual powers? Are animals judged for their performance? Are angels tempted to refuse orders? Of this and more in the coming article.

Ten Utterances

The Torah tells us that the world was created by G-d’s ten utterances. When G-d said: “It shall be light” light was created. And when G-d said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water” that’s exactly what happened. Each utterance created a new, perfect, facet of creation.

Chazal tell us that careful reading of this parasha exposes two outstanding cases – one for the better, and another for the worse (Yerushalmi, Kila’ayim 1:7): although G-d commanded the earth to produce trees that taste like their fruit, the earth failed to comply, and the trees didn’t taste like their fruit. As a punishment, when Adam Harishon was punished for his sin, the earth was punished along with him.

Another instance was when the earth produced grass. The Gemara (Chulin 60a) tells us that G-d instructed the earth to produce a multitude of grasses but didn’t require them to come out in distinctly different groups. The grasses deduced that if G-d wanted the trees to be produced separately, the grasses too should follow suit. And, indeed, they too came out separately so every species of plants should be distinctly different. When the grasses deduced G-d’s Will on their own, the angel of the world said: “The glory of the G-d shall endure forever: Hashem shall rejoice in his works” (Tehilim 104:31).

This Midrash sounds strange. How can the inanimate earth or plants choose one way or another? And how could G-d’s utterances that created this amazingly wonderous world have gone against G-d’s Will and done something different from what they were ordered to do?

The Sun and the Moon

Another occasion of conflicting wills appears on the Fourth Day of Creation between the sun and the moon. The Gemara in Chulin (60a) describes how the two luminaries were created in the same dimensions, and the discussion that led to shrinking of the moon. Are the sun and moon capable of free choice? How could they have sinned and been punished?

Doing Good, Choosing Good

Free will is what distinguishes humans from the rest of creation. The ability to choose allows them to receive reward for their good choices and punishment for failing to choose properly. The rest of creation follows the natural rules G-d embedded in creation – the laws of nature. Then, when it does as expect, it has simply followed its natural law; and when not – it is because of a long list of natural mechanisms G-d embedded in creation that cause a creature to do wrong. When an animal devours a human, it is an instinctive result of a predator’s food-hunting survival instinct. But there are other influences that can cause animals to behave against their nature. When humans pervert their ways, the natural world reacts in kind. In these cases it is human choices that warped nature. This is why the animals were also destroyed in the Great Flood and only those who preserved their original nature were welcomed into Noach’s Ark.

The only creation that has free choice is the human being. The Rambam (More Nevuchim I chapter 72) asserts that humans are the only creatures who cannot survive if they follow their natural instincts without using common sense and overcoming instincts and drives.

Pure free choice is very rare. Many of our choices, even those that appear to be made freely, are a result of societal norms, upbringing, chemistry, or convenience. However, there are rare occasions in which humans actively choose to change course, and that ability is uniquely human.

There are rare cases in which one gets so entrenched in evil that his nature does not allow him to choose differently. However, even then, one can repent and pray to G-d for help, just as the Gemara tells of Elazar ben Dordia (Avoda Zara 17a).

Divine Protection

The Radak (Tehilim 145:17) mentions two opinions regarding judgement, reward, and punishment for animals.

The first opinion proves from a Gemara in Chulin (63a) that animals do have reward and punishment:

Rabbi Yochanan saw a shlach, a bird that dove into the water and pulled out fish for its sustenance. When he saw this bird, he recited the pasuk: “Your charity is like the mighty mountains; Your judgments are [like] the vast deep. You save both man and beast” (Tehilim 36:7). Rashi in Chulin explains the link between the bird and the pasuk: When Hashem judges a fish in the sea and decides to punish it, he sends the shelach to pluck it out of the depth and eat it. Rashi adds that the shelach is also punished in having to hunt and fish for his food in the depth of the ocean.

This Gemara proves that animals are judged and punished, and if a lion devours a goat it is because G-d determined the goat worthy of it.

The unique donkey-related mitzva is another such example: the Gemara writes (Bechoros 5b) that in reward for the donkeys’ carrying the bounty when the Jewish Nation left Egypt they merited the mitzva of pidyon peter chamor – the mitzva to redeem a firstborn donkey. And in merit of the dogs’ remaining silent when they left Egypt, the Torah recommends that we give our non-kosher meat ito dogs. Not a single good deed goes unnoticed.

Rav Menashe Klein (Mishne Halachos VII 290) discusses this extensively and concludes that animals have Divine protection, and they don’t die by mistake. Everything is just and deserving and there is Divine providence for all of creation.

On the other hand, the Radak notes another opinion according to which an animal receives reward or punishment only for those things which include human interaction, as the Torah writes: “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand [an account]; from the hand of every beast…” (Bereshis 9:5). According to this opinion G-d judges fish only for harming or eating humans, and those were what Rabbi Yochanan saw. This obviously does not follow the literal meaning, because Rabbi Yochanan couldn’t have seen the shelach eating fish that had eaten or harmed humans.

Punishment Without Choice

If a predator has no free choice and cannot overcome its natural instincts to eat meat, even if it happens to be human, why would he be punished for doing so?

The answer is that sin warps nature, and when a sinner is punished nature is corrected. This is a punishment in the sense of correction.

The other reason is punishment in the sense we understand it — when human or beast choose evil. A predator who didn’t choose evil is included in: “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand [an account]; from the hand of every beast” (Bereshis 9:5) – the concept of murder is evil no matter what the reason, and it destroys the world.

Stars and Free Will

Apparently, creation has free will to some extent — lower than that of humans, but choice, nonetheless.

On the one hand, the Rambam maintains (Yesodei HaTorah 3:9-11) that all the stars and constellations, sun and moon, have a spirit, conscience, and understanding with which they praise the Creator and direct it purposely in its distinct role. The Zohar writes (Bereshis 14a) that just as humans are flesh and blood but directed by the spirit, so too the sun — made of gases; and the moon — of stone, have a spiritual aspect that leads them.

On the other hand Rashi (Devarim 30:19) writes that Hashem brought the heavens and earth as witnesses, because they never changed their size and appearance – the sun never rose in the west, and the earth always grows whatever is planted. Just as they are fixed and permanent, so too the Jewish people should never change their mission and actions.

Angels’ Punishment

Although the angels and stars don’t have full free choice, Chazal describe various punishments awarded to them. In the V’nesane Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we describe the angels’ fright of judgement.

Similarly, the Gemara tells us (Nedarim 39b) that when Korach and his company rebelled against Moshe Rabbenu the sun and the moon protested: “Master of the World! If you stand up for ben Amaram we will give forth light, and if not – we won’t.” In response, Hashem shot arrows and spears at them and told them, “Every single day worshippers of the sun and moon bow to you, and you still shine! You don’t protest for My honor, only the honor of a human being?!” The Gemara adds that from then on, the sun and moon don’t shine of their own accord because the idol worshippers bow to them – they shine against their will. Of this it is written in the pasuk (Chavakuk 3:11): “Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear” – the sun and the moon stopped shining, and only because of G-d’s admonishment did the resume their mission.

The angels’ level of choice is explained in the pasuk “And the living beings would run and return, like the appearance of the sparks” (Yechezkeil 1:14). Angels don’t have free choice or temptations – all they have is tremendous desire to do G-d’s Will. This is why they run to do what G-d wants, but are stopped by those things they don’t have permission to do.

Similarly, the sun and the moon – their diversion from their mission is born of their deep will to see the world perfected in G-d’s honor and to do judgement with those who doubted Moshe Rabbenu.

Choice, and The Earth

In light of these assertions, how could the earth have been considered a ‘sinner’ if it had no choice? Especially in light of the Rambam, who asserts the earth is material without spirit? The Chizkuni, (Bereshis 1:11) points out that this is exactly the reason its actions were sinful – it tried to do more than what G-d asked of it. It reasoned that had the trees been grown tasting like their fruit, there would be no trees left. This, nevertheless, is still a sin because any variation from G-d’s Will is a sin – we are obligated to follow instructions exactly, not more, and not less. The Taz (Divrei Dovid 1:11) and Sifsei Chachomim (80) who quotes the Maharshal explain, each in his own why, what exactly was the earth’s sin, and how it thought it was actually fulfilling G-d’s will.

The Chizkuni maintains that the angels’ sin was in wanting to fulfil G-d’s will beyond what was demanded of them.


The Mesilas Yesharim writes (chapter 1) that the world was created to serve humans, but it’s future is unclear: if humans get too attracted to This World and don’t connect with The Creator, the human enterprise is ruined, and he destroys the entire creation along with him. But if he rules over his impulses and attaches himself to G-d, using the world only to assist in his service of G-d, one ascends and raises up the rest of the world along with him.

The entire world including animals, angels, sun, moon, and stars have a degree of choice. Even the most materialistic of all – the earth itself — has a certain degree of choice.

This is explained in two ways:

  • Angels and stars, including the angel in charge of the grasses and earth have some degree of choice, albeit not to the same extent as humans.
  • Sin causes destruction and punishment. Although a predator cannot be blamed for its predating tendencies, it is accountable for the pain and suffering it causes. Just as one who touches an electric current gets electrocuted regardless of intention, this aspect of reward and punishment are not up to choice — if a mitzva happens through someone he is rewarded, and if a transgression occurs – he is punished.


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