The Free Will Question and Cognitive Reframing
by Miri Korbman
The question of whether free will can exist in the context of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most common and challenging concepts in Torah Judaism. As a teenager, I noticed the free will question come up frequently in classes, in-depth summer camp discussions, and Q&A panels across these settings. Until I learned about the concept of dialectics as an adult, I was always mildly troubled by how untroubled I was at the seeming contradiction inherent in believing wholeheartedly in both Bechira and Hashgachas Hashem simultaneously.
Interestingly, Rav Wolbe notes that the Chovos HaLevavos (Avodas Elokim, chapter 8) actually addresses this very question, explaining that it is true that Hashem orchestrates all events personally and universally, and it is also true that each person has free will to make decisions that impact one’s reality. Once one has decided to accept this duality, the true difficulty lies in how one chooses to perceive life events, and in how one’s perception colors his experience.
Our Parsha provides one of the clearest examples of this idea. Face to face with his brothers, having made the astonishing and epic revelation of his true identity, Yosef realizes that the Shevatim are terrified of what he might do to them in retribution for their actions against him when they threw him in the pit and ultimately sold him into slavery. Seemingly to reassure them, Yosef insists (48:5), “Lo Atem Shilachtem Osi Heina, Ki HaElokim;” - don’t worry, it wasn’t you who sent me here, rather it was all Hashem’s will!
At first glance, we might think that Yosef is making meaning of his experience, recognizing in the ultimate outcome of events the revealed Divine Providence inherent in what had happened to him so many years prior. Perhaps Yosef now recognizes that it is for the best that he ended up in Egypt, as viceroy to Pharaoh, as it enabled him to be able to provide sustenance to his family in his time of need. Rav Wolbe points out, however, that Yosef does not say, “it’s okay, in retrospect I see that it all worked out for the best, so since it turned out ok in the end, I can derive meaning from my experience.” Rather, Yosef says, “it was not you who sent me here,” because Yosef understood that even if the brothers did make the decision to sell him, every aspect of his journey was Divinely ordained all along, no matter how it turned out in the end.
Yosef’s language is purposeful and reflects the choice to perceive his life and the events leading to that moment in a specific way. This deliberate alteration of perspective is known in psychology as cognitive reframing, the proactive decision to look at events in a specific light. Most often, when we go through a challenge or hardship, we are struck by the pain, the hurt, the disappointment, the grief. It takes strength and purpose to actively choose to reframe the event as one that built us, strengthened us, molded us into the people we have become or are becoming. It is then a further step to reframe not only how things turned out, but also even the initial dominoes that fell, as part of God’s ultimate plan for our lives.
Similarly, when another person slights us or treats us in a way that makes us feel hurt, misunderstood, or angry, we have a choice. Recognizing that each person has free will, we can focus on the person’s decision, their mistake, their fault or flaw. We can hold it against them, and certainly there is truth to the idea that they made a choice and wielded their free will as a weapon of destruction or hurt. Yet, we also can reframe events as a function of God’s will, His master plan, His orchestration, and choose to see the human players in the plan as mere messengers.
What is astounding about Yosef’s reframe is that it reflects a deep understanding of the quintessentially Jewish dialectic of Bechira and Bitachon. While it is true that God indeed intended for Yosef to end up in Mitzrayim, for many reasons, including to start the Shibud and exile as promised to Avraham in the Bris Bein HaBisarim, it is also true that the brothers did not have to sell him, but chose to do so. Yosef could have easily chosen to focus on his brothers’ role in selling him – after all, their actions and feelings toward him were very real, and very nearly lethal. And yet, he chooses to reframe, to focus instead on the simultaneous reality that if this was the intended outcome, then it is very clear that Hashem also intended each event in the chain of events leading to the outcome, and that the people along the way, who indeed also had Bechira and made choices, were carrying out His ratzon.
Yosef’s message to the brothers, and to us, is that if the end result is God’s will, then every event along the way, even the first hammer blow, was His will, as well. So strong was Yosef’s belief in this reframing of events that he changed the entire narrative, insisting that, despite the brothers’ decision to sell him, it was not them, but God, who sent him to Egypt.
Cognitive reframing allows us the luxury of expanding our perspective and holding multiple truths simultaneously. There is a depth and breadth to our daily existence, to our every breath, to each person we meet, to every interaction, and we can choose to see things one way or the other. No matter how we choose to think about our experiences, we must recognize that both free will and Divine Providence are real, true concepts. Every person has free will, and our decisions have consequences. And, at the same time, Hashem ultimately decides the outcome, and every event, every experience, is preordained by Him. The power of cognitive reframing is that we have a choice to see things as nefarious acts of mere mortals, or as part of God’s loving plan for us. Choose to reframe, as Yosef did; the difference is undeniably liberating.