Yirmiya Perek 1

We are told that Hashem handpicked Yirmiya from his womb as a future prophet (1:5). This raises an important question. In order to have a doctrine of reward and punishment, one must have bechirah, free will. There is no reward if one is merely an actor in a pre-written bechirah-less script. Yet if Yirmiyau already had tendencies for greatness/prophecy in his mother’s womb, surely he had no free will; he had to become a holy person?

A Midrash quoted in Rashi (Bereishis 25:22) says that when Rivkah was pregnant, whenever she would pass the yeshiva, Yaakov would kick and try to leave the womb, while whenever she went past a place of idol worship, Esav kicked. This contradictory behavior caused her to seek advice from Shem. She was told that she was mothering twins who had opposite futures ahead of them, as reflected by their different behaviour. This Midrash implies that even before Esav was born he had a tendency towards serving idol. Does this mean he had no free will?

This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, because this lack of free will obviates the need for reward and punishment. Secondly, we are told that Esav’s marriage to two idol-worshippers was a source of distress for Yitzchak and Rivkah (26:34-35, Rashi). But if Rivkah knew that Esav would have ‘idol-worshipping genes,’ why view Esav’s actions as ‘rebellious’? Was he not merely following the dictated set of genetic ‘rules’?

Free will does not mean that there is a completely equal pull to do good as there is to do bad. Rather, as long as it is not absolutely inevitable that one option will be chosen, free will exists. One might have an overwhelming tendency to do something wrong, but as long as it is possible to resist, one is held responsible for his actions that were done from free-will.

In Rav Efrati’s footnotes to Derech Hashem, he supports this principle, based on the Ramchal’s idea that after Adam HaRishon’s sin, our spiritual makeup changed and our souls became less potent and easier to be drawn into sin. Does this constitute a removal of free will? No; free will still exists, for it is still possible to choose either bad or good, no matter how much effort we have to invest. The Rambam echoes this principle. Cited by the Chidushei HaRan in Moed Kattan (18b), the Rambam uses this principle to explain how the Gemara, which says that Hashem selects a marriage partner for everyone before they are born, does not go against free will vis-a-vis observing the mitzvah to marry: for one has a choice whether to reject this partner. He espouses similar explanations in resolving the Egyptians’ free will with the fact that Hashem had promised Avraham that a nation would enslave his offspring.

It is this free will principle that allows us to understand the Midrash about Yaakov and Esav. Despite the fact that they seemed to have predisposed tendencies, they still had free will, for they did not have to follow these urges. The same goes for Yaakov and Yirmiya: they had tendencies for spiritual greatness in the womb, but it was still their job to foster and develop them and not to throw them off.