Something About Sforno — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Bo 5769
The Inescapability of Destiny
Free will versus pre-destination is a classic Jewish paradox.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno adds a new twist to the philosophical issue in this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 11:1):
“God said to Moses: One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends you forth, it shall be complete – he shall drive you out of here.”
Sforno comments on this verse:
“But previously he expelled just the two of you (Moses and Aharon) from just his presence. Now he will expel all of you from the entire area.”
Now Sforno’s follows with his theological gem:
“For this is the measure of righteousness of the Almighty. For when a man stubbornly refuses to do the right thing, to do the will of his Creator, he will end up doing what he ran away from, with trouble and grief, against his desire.”
After stating this startling thesis, that we will end up doing what we were meant to do, and suffer doing so if we don’t pursue it willingly, Sforno brings three very different and ominous sources to back up his thesis:
“Because you did not serve God, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. So you will serve your enemies whom God will send against you, in hunger and in thirst in nakedness and without anything…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
Here Sforno implies the issue of servitude and not just servitude, but a happy one at that. If we will not serve God with joy, then we will serve others in unpleasant circumstances.
The second source:
“Say to them: As I live – the word of God — if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears. In this wilderness shall your carcasses drop…” (Number 14:28).
God castigates the complaining Israelites in the desert after their despair from the negative report of the Spies who reconnoitered the Land of Canaan. One of the cries that came from the despairing Israelites was that God intended for them to die in the desert. God was apparently so incensed with the Israelite loss of faith, that he doomed them with the very fate they declared for themselves. Lesson: we have to watch very carefully what we say – because God might very well decide to deliver on it.
“Whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.” (Tractate Avot, 4:11).
In this last and somewhat known dictum from Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of our Fathers), Sforno quotes only the negative part of the instruction. He focuses on the fact that if one is determined to be negligent in his Torah-related responsibilities he will indeed succeed in maintaining his negligence, though perhaps not in the style or comfort he wanted to continue.
Each of Sforno’s sources teaches a different lesson. However, the common thread, with which he wanted to highlight Pharoah’s fate is that a negative attitude towards ones responsibilities and relationship with God, will come back to haunt us in a most exacting and parallel way to the area of our failing.
While we may certainly exercise free will, and our destiny may be known to God, according to Sforno, the path to that destiny will depend on how wisely we use that free will.
May we figure out our personal paths and may they be as happy as possible.
To my mother, Nira Spitz, whose free will has always been harnessed to a glorious destiny. Amongst many accomplishments, 40 years ago she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, who still tries to amuse her. Thanks for everything.