Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given. The world is judged with goodness, and all is according to the abundance of good deeds. Ethics of the Fathers, 3:19
Between the ages of three and nine, my youngest daughter enjoyed nothing more than to have me swing her by her arms and flip her over my shoulder. Without exception or variation, she would giggle with delight after every inversion and cry out, "Again!"
One might conclude, therefore, that I could foretell the future: I knew what she would say before she said it, and I was never wrong.
The truth is, I could tell the future, just as we all predict the future many times each day.
When a major league baseball star hits the ball cleanly, the announcer calls a home run before the ball has left the park. When a traffic light turns yellow, a responsible driver slows in anticipation of the red light soon to follow. When the carpenter's hammer slips through his fingers, he knows that the hammer is going to fall to the ground. When a typical mother asks her teenage son to clean up his room, she knows that he is going to roll his eyes and say, "I'll do it later." When a movie aficionado watches Casablanca, he knows precisely when Humphrey Bogart is going to say, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." (He also knows that Bogart is never going to say, "Play it again, Sam," no matter how many times he watches the film.)
TO KNOW IS NOT TO DO
In none of these situations does the person who anticipates what is going to happen have any control over it happening. Nevertheless, although he predicts the outcome with almost flawless accuracy, we do not marvel at his prescience. We understand implicitly that familiarity with surrounding circumstances enables all of us to anticipate the future. And if once in a great while we are surprised by an unexpected outcome – well, we're only human.
The Almighty, however, is much more than human. And despite the greatest of philosophers having anguished for generations over the seeming contradiction between divine foreknowledge and human free will, the resolution is really no more complicated than the joy of a little girl being swung in her father's arms.
Just as a computer programmer knows every nuance of the programs he has written and an automotive engineer understands every function of the cars he has designed, the Creator of the Universe understands every aspect of His creations. Like a parent knows his own child, our Father in heaven knows us better than we know ourselves, but without even the tiniest deviation resulting from human error. He knows how we will choose, but His knowledge does not interfere with our freedom of choice.
We will be judged not for our successes or our failures, but according the effort we exert to choose wisely and rightly.
It could be no other way. On the one hand, God has created malachim – heavenly angels of pure spirituality that can do nothing other than perform His will; on the other hand, He has created animals, creatures that are purely physical and unable to follow any course of action other than their natural impulses. Only human beings possess a spiritual soul clothed in a physical body; only human beings possess the potential to transcend the physical and cling to the spiritual by an act of free will.
THE ULTIMATE KINDNESS OF FREEDOM
This is what our mishna means when it declares that the world is judged with kindness: unlike any other creation, man's ultimate reward must be earned. Of all God's creatures, man alone will be judged. In truth, it is by holding us accountable for our actions that the Almighty demonstrates His profound love for us and provides us the opportunity to enjoy an eternal reward in the World to Come, untarnished by the shame of being undeserved.
In the conflict between our physical and spiritual natures, the mishna warns us to strive for an abundance of good deeds. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the sage Rabbi Shimon teaches that every person should see himself as if he is 50-50, as if his fate is evenly balanced between two sides of a great Scale of Justice, with his merits on one side exactly equal to his demerits on the other. His judgment hangs upon his next action, the action that will tilt his own personal reckoning one way or the other.
But that's not all. Even more compelling is the thought that the fate of the entire world may also be equally balanced, and that my next action will determine not only my own judgment, but the judgment of all mankind. Indeed, our sages record many instances where a single act of either commission or omission could have tipped the scale of merits and ushered our world into the messianic era. With a moment's hesitation, with a single act of carelessness or thoughtlessness, any one of us can miss a window of opportunity and thereby extend mankind's exile in the spiritual darkness of our physical world.
True, the Almighty knows when the ultimate redemption will come. But we do not. Neither do we know whether we are meant to struggle with poverty or with wealth, with conflict or with comfort, with success or with failure. Whatever our lot in life, it is the struggle that matters. We will be judged not for our successes or our failures, but according the effort we exert to choose wisely and rightly in accordance with the divine will.