From the Heart of Jerusalem

When free choice is no longer ours to choose


This doesn’t look like such a good idea, said Benjy, commander of an elite company in Golani’s Egoz unit, in the summer of 2006. “I know,” responded his commander, “but orders are orders.”

Their mission was to cross the border into Lebanon and take the ridgeline some 3 kilometers opposite in an effort to support IDF troops to the east.

I have visited the border by Kibbutz Avivim many times, and it never ceases to amaze me, the fortitude and raw courage it must have taken for Benjy to lead his men over wide open territory in broad daylight, beneath the guns of Hezbollah terrorists in the hills above.

This was the same Benjy Hillman, subsequently killed in the battle at Maroun Areas, who had been cited for bravery some years earlier when he single handedly charged armed terrorists who had infiltrated one of the settlements in Gush Katif. Alone, he saved the lives of those under fire, by choosing to attack armed terrorists rather than wait for backup forces to come to his aid.

How does a person make such choices, from where comes the courage to ignore the most basic survival instinct and make what would, post facto, prove to be the right choice?

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This week’s parsha, Beshalach, presents us with a fascinating opportunity to explore the nature of our freedom to choose: “And G-d did not take the Jewish people via the land of the Philistines lest they see war and desire to return to Egypt.”

G-d knew that the Jewish people, straight out of 200 years of Egyptian servitude, were not ready to fight, and the inevitable encounter with the warlike Philistine tribes would terrify them and have them wanting to return to Egypt. So G-d takes them northeast, towards the Red sea, where they encounter … the entire Egyptian army! G-d splits the sea, saves the Jewish people and vanquishes the Egyptian army.

Why couldn’t G-d do that to the Philistines instead? Or He could have caused the Philistines not to want to fight, thus avoiding a conflict all together … why the need for such an elaborate detour?

Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his Darash Moshe, suggests that if G-d had taken either action, He would have been removing the enemy’s free choice. Yet that’s what He did to the Egyptions. Why?

The Ramban points out that although G-d promises (at the burning bush) that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, in the first five of the ten plagues the verse actually says that “Pharaoh hardened his heart;” only in the sixth plague does it actually say that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In fact, a person can make choices that remove his ability to choose — much like a drug addict who initially makes a conscious choice to experiment with a dangerous chemical substance, and eventually loses his ability to resist what has become an addiction.

Egypt chose an evil path, but eventually that choice precluded their ability to choose a logical path of good. Similarly, in modern times, the Nazis’ chosen evil path eventually precluded their ability to see that the choices they were making were not only illogical but spelled their inevitable downfall. In the summer of 1944, with the war hanging in the balance, and their supply lines in disarray, the Nazis were diverting desperately needed trains to move the 400,000 Jews of Hungary in the opposite direction to Auschwitz in Poland.

Hitler and his minions were simply no longer able to choose logically; they were too deeply committed to evil.

Perhaps the Philistines had not yet sunken, in their pagan idolatry, to the level of evil that precluded their ability to choose. As for the Jews, after centuries of servitude, their slave mentality was such that they were no longer free or able to choose to leave Egypt on their own; they needed Hashem’s help to get out. Before we could choose to truly leave behind the slave mentality and dependence born of 200 years of slavery, we needed to see Egypt in all its might destroyed by no less than G-d Himself.

What choices do we make, and how do they take us down a path which eventually removes our ability to choose? 

Sometimes, like Major Benjy Hillman o”bm we grow up making good choices that eventually preclude our ability to make the wrong choices. How many difficult but good, right choices must a person make until it becomes almost natural?

The message of Beshalach is that we need to define the “Egypt” in our lives, and outline our choices to set ourselves free. May we be blessed to find the wisdom and fortitude to make the right choices, for the right reasons, at the right time.