Friday, October 28, 2016

Tzelem Elokim

By Rabbi Hershel Schachter

The Torah tells us that man was created b'zelem elokim. The Rambam (in Moreh Nevuchim) points out that this clearly cannot mean that man has the same physical features as Hashem since Hashem has no body at all. The Meshech Chochma interprets this to mean that human beings have bechira chofshis[1]. Many psychologists do not believe in bechira chofshis. They think that when a baby is born his mind is already set regarding what type of a life he will live, what type of a person he will marry, and what type of an occupation he will pursue. This opinion is contrary to our religion. We believe that just as Hashem is an original thinker and is creative, so too every normal person was given bechira chofshish, i.e. the ability to decide on his own which route to pursue in life.

The Rambam points out that if without bechira chofshish there would be no room for sechar v'onesh. The righteous only deserve to be rewarded and the sinners only deserve to be punished if they could really choose between different options. The Gemarah tells us that when every baby is born the angel who is "in charge of babies" determines whether that particular child will be intelligent, wealthy, or strong; but no decision is made by the angel whether the child will be a tzaddik or a rosha. When people make decisions in life, there are always conflicting considerations taken into account. While some people have tendencies in one direction or another, all healthy and normal individuals still have bechira chofshish to choose to ignore those tendencies and some of the considerations and be a tzaddik. This is why the novi (Yirmiyahu 9:22-23) tells us that a wealthy person should not brag about his wealth and a strong person has nothing to brag about with respect to his strength and a smart person should not brag about how bright he is. The only thing a person deserves praise for is his decision to be a tzaddik because that decision was made solely by him. The strength, the wealth and the brains were decided by the angel.

The Gemarah (Berachos 33b) tells us that all aspects of human life are determined from heaven with the sole exception of yiras shomayim. The Rambam takes the term "yiras shomayim" to refer to all human activities where one exercises his bechira chofshish.

The Torah instructs us to go in the ways of Hashem in order to preserve the tzelem Elokim that was implanted within us at birth. Included in that mitzvah is that we should make decisions for ourselves. Many resha'im feel that they are exercising their bechirah chofshish to a greater extent than the tzadikim because they are daring enough to be so original as to go against the wishes of Hashem. This is clearly a misjudgment. Years ago this story used to be told about a couple that had their neighbors in their home to play a card game. The wife, who always dominated her husband, instructed when the bell rang, "Max, go answer the door". When the company sat down to play their game, the wife instructed her husband, "Max, bring in some drinks". Every two minutes she was giving her husband instructions and he was following all of her orders. In the middle of the card game, the wife wanted to show the company how obedient her husband is so she instructed him, "Max, go climb under the table and sit on the floor". Max followed orders once again. After several minutes the wife said to the husband, "Max you can come out from under the table and sit on your chair". The husband did not budge and after another two minutes she said, "Max, you can come up now". Max did not budge but stuck his finger out from under the table and said, "Tillie, I will not come out! I will show you who is boss." and he continued to sit on the floor under the table!

We all have bechira chofshish and are the "ba'alim" over our lives. Yes, we can decide with impunity to violate Hashem's mitzvos, and thereby have the feeling as if we are exercising our bechira to a greater extent than the tzadikim; but this type of showing "who is boss" is like Max's ridiculous decision to continue to sit on the floor under the table with all the company present. Yes, he showed his wife who was the "boss", but he did so in a very silly inappropriate way.

We should all imitate the ways of Hashem by exercising our bechirah chofshis in a most positive, constructive and creative fashion.

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