Shelach: Statistics and Free Will


Experts attempt to predict people’s future behavior through statistics. Does that mean you are just a statistic? Do you have the free will to make your own decisions or are you just a cog in the machine? Join this ancient Jewish debate.

How Could G-d Promise?

A question arises from these verses:

How could G-d promise that their children would ultimately enter the land—if it was possible that the children might sin and likewise lose their privilege?

After all, their parents failed at the debacle of the spies and lost their own opportunity to enter the land. Moses even feared that Joshua, his closest protégé, was susceptible, and therefore added the letter ה—hei from the name of G-d to his name, saying, “My G-d save you from the schemes of the spies.” 

How could G-d promise that their children would enter the land if it depended on their own free will?

Statistics — in Jewish Writings

We can explain it with the following preface: There is a concept which is celebrated as a brand-new innovation of recent generations that never existed before, while in truth, this concept—like all others—has a source in Torah. 

This is known as “statistics.” The principle is that although it is impossible to foresee the behavior of an individual, we can predict how large numbers of people will behave in a month, year, or even ten years from now. By evaluating past behavioral patterns, we can determine future trends as well. This technique has proven to be accurate; although it hasn’t been fully understood, they’ve demonstrated that the method works and they take pride in the innovation, and so on.

The Answer: Individual vs. Collective 

Maimonides explains the concept of free will at length in the Laws of Repentance: “Every person has the free will to do as he chooses, and nobody withholds that ability from him…” But he then follows with a question: When G-d says that a foreign nation will enslave the Israelites, He seems to preordain the Egyptians to commit evil. Is that not a contradiction to the principle of free will?

He answers that “every Egyptian who oppressed the Israelites had the choice to refrain from doing so. G-d did not make this decree on a particular person, rather, He merely informed Abraham that his descendants were destined to be enslaved in a strange land.” “G-d is merely informing us of the pattern of the world. It is like someone who says, ‘This nation will have righteous and wicked people.’ A wicked person is not entitled to claim that his wickedness is unavoidable…”

On an individual level, every person has free choice. But in the story about Abraham, Torah is telling us about broader behavioral patterns (and this explanation also resolves the sharp critique written by the Raavad* [see below]).

We see here that a concept which seems to be a recent innovation is clearly stated by Maimonides with regards to a clear verse in the Torah!

This also explains G-d’s assertion that the second generation in the desert would ultimately enter the Land of Israel. It is an assertion about the entire generation, and therefore does not contradict the personal free choice of every individual.

A Lesson About Education

This teaches us an important lesson about educating children and engaging with unaffiliated Jews:

Some argue that it is pointless to engage in outreach, because ultimately—they correctly assert—every person retains his own free will. After you invest great effort in teaching someone Torah, he may just choose to do the opposite. Why invest energy in an endeavor in which success is uncertain? It would be better to do something which is sure to bear results: to sit and study Torah, to resolve a difficult question in Maimonides and so on. The Alter Rebbe describes the amazing things that occur in Heaven whenever we innovate in Torah learning—even the heavenly angels come to listen to our original Torah thoughts.

Even When It Doesn’t Add Up

However, with all due respect, we need to strive to fulfill the directive of our Rebbes, who taught us that even if we need to leave our own Torah study, we are duty-bound to go out into the street, find a Jew who never studied Alef Bet, and teach him Alef and Bet. If he knowns the actual Hebrew alphabet, teach him the Alef Bet of Judaism.

Who Is at Fault?

What of the claim that engaging with others might prove to be useless? Usually, the deficiency is in the teacher, not the student. If someone reaches out to others with genuine sincerity, he is bound to see results. If that was not the case, the deficiency is his own.

And if you did everything in your power but still made no impact—it is no longer your concern. Your responsibility is to engage him; the final result is not your concern. Comparably, Jewish law states that if you search for chametz but find nothing, your blessing was not recited in vain, because we are commanded to search for chametz, not to find it. If you didn’t find any, that’s alright—you still fulfilled the mitzvah perfectly. The same is true regarding the commandment to “reproach your colleague”—we are commanded to reproach a friend “even one hundred times.” His choice of behavior afterwards is not your concern; you performed your obligation.

G-d’s Promise

But, most importantly: In our case, G-d promises us that ultimately, our efforts will bear fruit. G-d says that the children will ultimately be brought into the Land of Israel; even if there seems to be an exception to the rule, someone out of the ordinary, it is only an individual. You will certainly impact the broader public and bring them closer to Judaism.

Engaging with G-d’s children is the perfect preparation for the spiritual conquest and transformation of ‘Canaan’ into the ‘Land of Israel,’ which will lead to the physical conquest of the land; as the verse says, “Your borders will extend from the Euphrates until the Mediterranean Sea,” with the coming of our righteous Moshiach—may he come and redeem us very soon. 

Shabbat Parshat Shelach 1972
(Toras Menachem vol. 68 pg. 400)

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