Question: Since G-d knows the future, isn’t our choice very limited? If so, how can man be faulted for any missteps he makes?
Answer: The Gemara (Niddah 16b) states in the name of R. Hanina, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for yir’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven)” – as Deuteronomy 10:12 states, “Ve’ata Yisrael mah Hashem Elokecha sho’el me’immach ki im le’yir’ah et Hashem Elokecha… – Now, O Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you but to fear the L-rd, your G-d.”
Tosafot (ad. loc., s.v. “Hakol biy’dei Shamayim”) asks: If so, why does Ketubbot 30a state that “all is in Heaven’s hands with the exception of tzinim u’pachim (cold and heat)?” Tosafot answers that the first Gemara concerns man’s behavior and characteristics while the second Gemara concerns man’s illnesses and tribulations. Although they are decreed in Heaven, one may avert them through due diligence.
Genesis 6:5-6 states, “Va’yar Hashem ki rabbah ra’at ha’adam ba’aretz vechol yetzer machshevet libbo rak ra kol hayom. Va’yinnachem Hashem ki asah et ha’adam – G-d saw that the wickedness of man on earth was great and that his thoughts were always evil. G-d regretted having created man….” But what about the future generations? Perhaps their behavior would have been better. Clearly, though, Hashem looked into the future and saw man’s evil behavior continuing, and therefore He regretted having created him.
If so, though, why are we faulted for sinning?
R. Hanina (Hullin 7b) said, “No man bruises his finger here on earth unless it was so decreed against him in Heaven, as it is stated [Psalms 37:23], ‘MeHashem mitz’adei gever konanu – The steps of man are ordered by the L-rd’ and [Proverbs 20:24], ‘MeHashem mitz’adei gaver, ve’adam mah yavin darko – Man’s steps are from [determined by] the L-rd, and how can a man understand his own way?’” Thus, it is clear that everything is beyond man’s control.
Yet, R’ Hanina also said (Berachot 33b), “Hakol biy’dei Shamayim chutz mi’yir’at Shamayim – All is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven.” Rashi s.v. “Hakol biy’dei Shamayim” (ad loc.) states in very clear terms that everything related to an individual as far as human characteristics and qualities are concerned – whether he is tall or short, poor or wealthy, wise or foolish, fair or dark – is in the hands of the Almighty. But whether he is righteous or wicked is man’s choice. Two paths are set before him, and he is supposed to choose [the path of] fear of Heaven.
The source of Rashi’s statement is in Mesechet Niddah (16b), which deals with a dispute between R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish concerning verses related to marital relations. Resh Lakish rejects R. Yochanan’s use of Job 3:2 (“Yovad yom ivaleid bo, ve’halailah amar horah gaver – Lost be the day when I was born, and the night which said: There is a man child conceived”) to prove that one may not engage in marital relations during the day. Resh Lakish derives this prohibition from Proverbs 19:16 (“Bozeh derachav yamut – One who deviates in his ways will die”).
The Gemara asks: What does Resh Lakish derive from Job 3:2? It answers: It’s used in the exegesis of R. Hanina bar Papa’s statement (Niddah 16b), “The angel in charge of overseeing conception is called Lailah (Night) and he takes the tiny embryonic droplet before the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, ‘Sovereign of the Universe, what will be the fate of this droplet? Shall it produce a strong person or a weak one, a wise one or a foolish one, a rich one or a poor one?’ But he does not ask whether the person will be wicked or righteous, in accordance with the statement of R. Hanina, ‘All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.’”
The Gemara then quotes Deuteronomy 10:12, “And now, O Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d require of you but to fear the L-rd your G-d.” Rashi comments (Niddah loc. cit.) that this is the only thing G-d asks of us since it is in our hands. Everything else is pre-ordained.
Yet, the Rambam maintains that understanding and intelligence, too, are somewhat in man’s control. He writes (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:2), “It should not cross your mind, in the manner of the fools of the nations of the world and the boors in our own midst, that G-d decreed from the moment of birth whether a person will be righteous or wicked. Each person is endowed with the capability to be righteous in the manner of Moshe Rabbeinu or wicked like Jeroboam ben Nevat, to be a wise individual or a fool.”
Hagahot Maimoniyot and Kesef Mishneh (ad loc.) note that these words seem to contradict the Talmudic statement that only fear of Heaven is in our hands. They explain, however, that the Rambam is only talking about wisdom or foolishness in regard to yir’at Shamayim. This is supported by Resh Lakish’s statement (Sotah 3a), “A man does not commit a transgression except when a ruach shetut (a spirit of folly) enters him.”
Thus, we can explain, following the thinking process of the Rambam, that everyone has the ability to strive for ruach chachmah (a spirit of wisdom) to enable him to perform the commandments of G-d rather than succumb to a spirit of folly. This moral choice is ours to make.
And now we can possibly explain the verse, “Va’yinnachem Hashem ki asah et ha’adam – G-d regretted having created man….” G-d only regrets creating man when he sins; when man fulfills G-d’s commandments, G-d sees His creation with great favor (see also Rashi s.v. “Vayit’atzev el libbo” in Bereishit 6:6, quoting Bereishit Rabbah 27:7).