We left last week wondering why Rambam’s unusually long philosophical discussion of bechirah is in Hilchos Teshuva and not in Hilchos Yesodei Torah where it would logically seem to be more appropriate. True, its placement in Hilchos Teshuvah reinforces our deep belief in bechirah — for what greater statement of belief in free will can there be than the concept of teshuvah, which states that even though I am inevitably affected by my aveiros, and I have been pulled down by them and am that much further from HaShem, nevertheless I can freely choose to change my ways and climb back up — and that it is embedded in the gift of teshuvah. Still, the concept itself certainly belongs in the Rambam’s Book of Fundamental Beliefs.
What makes this even more puzzling is that Rambam continues the discussion into the next chapter, where he gives exceptions to the just-stated rule of bechirah! He states there that a person can commit a sin or sins of such magnitude, and can repeatedly refuse to change, to the point where his punishment from HaShem is to have his bechirah taken away, and then, being in that situation, he can no longer do teshuvah! Rambam gives historical examples of such people, e.g. Pharaoh and Sichon. But he also points to Bnei Yisrael at certain points in their history, where the navi warns them that they are fast approaching such a point. This means that it is not only singular resha’im who could reach this level, but it is at least a theoretical possibility for all! Rambam explicitly states that when he says, “And that is why nevi’im (!) and tzadikim (!) prayed to HaShem to help them [in their spiritual struggles]… as Dovid Hamelech states, ‘Let not my sins prevent me from finding the correct path in life.’ ” This is amazing! The “punishment” of which the Rambam speaks in chapter 6 is not some extraordinarily rare event reserved for a few extraordinarily wicked people; it is something that everyone — Dovid Hamelech! Klal Yisrael! — must be aware of, can fall victim to, and should therefore fear, i.e. that repeated failure to do teshuvah can bring one a point where HaShem removes the possibility of doing so, as a punishment.
And so every person is faced with the following reality: On the one hand, free will, the crowning raison de’tre of mankind, demands and requires the possibility of teshuvah; that is clear from the way Rambam presents teshuvah — intertwined, as it were, with free will. On the other hand, if we do not take advantage of the gift of free will even after we have sinned, we can chas v’shalom reach a point where it is taken away from us! And that is a genuine possibility that has to be realized and faced.
So what do we do? Rambam actually gives us the answer: Daven (halachah 4 there, quoted above). Ask HaShem to aid you to not lose that freedom of choice, not to fall that far. And (halachah 5) to study Torah, and the ways of HaShem (learning Torah, mussar, and hashkafah teaches us about HaShem’s ways). And then, as Rambam states, “This is a characteristic all people share. When a person is involved in wisdom and justice, it causes him to pursue the paths of righteousness. And that is a manifestation of the statement of Chazal, ‘He who comes to purify himself is helped [from heaven],’ i.e. will have siyata dishmaya to not cross that line.’ ”
Clearly, Rambam wrote about bechirah specifically in the context of teshuvah (see chapter 7, halachah 1), where he states explicitly, “Since a person has free will, as explained, he must do teshuvah and desist from evil ways while he is still able to.” This accentuates the power and intensity of free will, and emphasizes the absolute necessity and obligation to do teshuvah — because you can! There is no excuse! As long as you have free will, you can do teshuvah! What an unbelievably powerful statement! And if you repeatedly refuse to take this route, well…
What is Elul? Elul is yemei ratzon. Elul is teshuvah time, time to show your ratzon, your free will, your desire, and to have HaShem’s ratzon, His favor and pleasure, reflected back to us. On that first Elul, so to speak, Bnei Yisrael were in teshuvah-mode. They had grievously sinned, and needed to climb back. And so we are taught that great lesson: “Just as the first 40 days were with ratzon [for that was before the sin], so too were the last 40 (the teshuvah process) b’ratzon” (Rashi). That’s amazing. But maybe not that amazing… You still have free will, you have not “ruined” anything irreversibly, you can climb back, not just you can, but you must! It is simply exercising your free will! Elul is the time set aside for the exercise of free will specifically in the situation of teshuvah! The first 40 days were b’ratzon; sure, why not, there was no sin yet! Elul “celebrates” that the last 40 were b’ratzon — that the gift of free will continues even after bad choices are made. Your mind-set is changeable and revocable. And on the contrary, what one must fear is a refusal to take the Elul advantage, and to just let it drift away. Then we must fear that it will indeed be taken from us, as per Rambam chapter 6. Rather, through tefillah and Torah, described there in halachah 4 and 5, one takes advantage of this mo’ed, and climbs back to reach his or her full spiritual potential.
A kesivah v’chasima tova, and a fulfilling aseres yemei teshuvah!
I take this opportunity to invite you (men and women included) to come this Shabbos and listen to any one, or more, of a number of shiurim given by the famous Rabbi Menachem Nissel, specifically on the topic of tefillah and other davening topics, taking place at Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham, corner Refa’im and Luz, as follows:
Special Guest “Scholar-in-Residence,” Rabbi Menachem Nissel, a teacher beloved by many hundreds upon hundreds of talmidos, and the author of Righshei Lev, will be at BTYA this Shabbos (after Kabbalas Shabbos, approximately 7:10 p.m.; after Mussaf, approximately 9:50 a.m.; 5 p.m. Shabbos afternoon’ and a seudah shlishis for men only with an “ask the rabbi” session), lecturing and teaching in order to enhance our understanding and approach to tefillah.