Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Incremental Free Will (Vaetchanan)

The Torah Text

After Moses describes the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:1-19), he recounts how the Israelites were afraid of hearing God’s voice (Deuteronomy 5:20-24). Moses shares God’s response in Deuteronomy 5:25-28, including God’s approval that the people are somewhat awe-struck by the divine presence: “May they always be of such mind, to revere Me and follow all My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever” (v. 26). This raises a question of how much God knows or controls future outcomes, and implies a level of free will in human beings such that they might rise to or disappoint God’s hopes for them.

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

ודע כי שורש כל המעשים והתנועות גזרות השם וכל הנמצאים תחת השמים כחם ותולדותם כפי המערכ’ העליונה עם השרשים למטה וכן עם המורכבים וכן כפי תנועתם יום יום ועת ועת כי לעולם יהיה שנוי כאשר פירש בעל ספר יצירה והחלקים יקבלו מהכללים כפי תולדותם ובעבור כח הכללים יוכלו לשנות מעט בתולדת וזה טעם ויחזק ה’ את לב פרעה ובמקום אחר ויכבד לבו הוא ועבדיו והכל אמת על כן אומר ידעתי ה’ כי לא לאדם דרכו ואומר למה תתענו ה’ מדרכך ומשה אמר ובחרת בחיים

Deuteronomy 5:26 MAY THEY … Note, God’s decrees are the source of all action and movements. The power and nature of all that is found beneath the heavens is determined by the arrangement of the heavenly bodies. These are connected to the roots below. The same applies to the compounds. All things similarly depend on the movements of the heavenly bodies day by day and time by time, for there is always a change, as the author of the Sefer Yetzirah explained. The parts receive from the categories according to their nature. It is due to the power of the “categories” that they can make some small changes in nature. This is the meaning of and Adonai hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 11:10). In another place, Scripture states, and hardened his heart, he and his servants (Exodus 9:34). It is all true. Scripture therefore states, O Adonai, I know that a person’s way is not their own (Jeremiah 10:23). It similarly states, O Adonai, why do You make us stray from Your ways (Isaiah 63:17). Moses said, therefore choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19) … (Translation adapted from Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

Ibn Ezra lays out some of his beliefs in this passage:

  1. God is the source of everything, setting in motion the natural universe.
  2. The constellations determine the nature of earthly creatures.
  3. Change happens daily, in response to the movements of the constellations.
  4. Ibn Ezra says “it is due to the power of the categories (i.e. human beings, animals, plants, etc.) that they (i.e. humans who engage in science) can make some small changes in nature.” The quest for understanding can lead to an incremental transcendence of one’s own nature.

This perspective helps us understand Pharaoh, who Exodus describes as hardening his own heart (as Strickman and Silver put it, Pharaoh chooses not to develop his soul) as well as God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (meaning it is in his nature to be hard-hearted). When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, refusing to grow in self-understanding, he loses the ability to transcend his callous nature.

When Moses says, “Choose life!”, he is urging us to delve into our experience with the limitless curiosity of a scientist and with the moral urgency of one tasked with holiness. Our lives, our souls, come with a lot already encoded – but we have the choice to become aware and teach ourselves to grow.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.