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Beit Midrash Series Ein Ayah

condensed from Ein Ayah, Berachot 9:259

Free Choice of the Individual and of the Collective

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Gemara: "[David said to Shaul: If Hashem incited you against me …" (Shmuel I 26:19) – Rav Elazar said: Hashem said to David: "You call Me an inciter? Behold, I will cause you to stumble in a matter that even schoolchildren know, as the pasuk says: ‘When you will count the heads of Bnei Yisrael, each man shall give atonement for his soul’ (Shemot 30:12)." As a direct result, it says "Hashem placed a Satan on Israel [and it incited David to count Israel]" (Divrei Hayamim I 21:1). It is also written: "[The anger of Hashem continued to be aroused at Israel] and it incited David in them, saying: ‘Go count Israel’" (Shmuel II 24:1). When David counted them, he neglected to take from them the atonement.

Ein Ayah:The question of free will is always the most severe one in regard to the basic principles of the Torah and the perception of the intellect and human experience. We know that the world must operate in a way that evil exists within it. In fact, there are several things of great value in the world that would not have been actualized if they were not accompanied by the possibility and the preparedness of people to choose evil. The fact that evil is needed for the world to be complete causes many people to think that there cannot really be free choice.
The truth is that there is a great difference between the rules of free will that govern the collective and those that govern the individual. Certainly regarding the collective, there cannot be full free choice, as evil must exist just as good exists. On the other hand, in regard to the collective, nothing is absolutely bad, as something which is bad from the perspective of an individual can bring good communally. This is what the Rabbis meant when they said: "Just as praise of Hashem emanates from the righteous so does it emanate from the wicked" (Shemot Rabba 7:4). This is supported by the pasuk: "All that Hashem did is for Him, even an evil person for the day of evil" (Mishlei 16:4).
The confusion that emerges when people do not distinguish between the parameters of free choice that exist for the masses and for the individual causes unanswerable questions, as things appear to be both free and compelled to exist. The phrase that David used, "If Hashem incited you against me," seems to indicate that a specific individual lacked free choice. This is not true, as individuals have full free will.
The matter of atonement while counting hits at the heart of the issue we have been discussing. Without counting individuals, the whole nation can be seen as one mass. We know that a nation must include bad and deficient people, as this is the nature of a collective. The nation does not lose its right to exist because of these people; as a matter of fact, they are needed to provide certain positive opportunities for the community. When it comes to the accounting of an individual, though, every shortcoming must be reckoned with based on the rules of responsibility for free choice, and there is often a need for atonement. These concepts are confusing and cause many to make mistakes. Even David erred when he said that Shaul’s personal free will was curtailed, as this violates an article of basic faith. It is true that David did not do so purposely but was under the pressure of anguishing experiences. Nevertheless, the result was the lack of atonement for the counting of the individual, which indicates a lack of understanding of the difference between the individual and the collective in regard to free will. In truth, regarding an individual, including Shaul, there is both free will and a directive of "you shall choose life" (Devarim 30:19).

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