Time, Gravity, and Free Will

This week’s parasha, Vayechi, begins with Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. Since Menashe is older, his father Joseph makes sure to place him on Jacob’s right. This way, Jacob can place his superior right hand on Menashe, and give him the special blessing reserved for the firstborn. However, Jacob crosses over his arms and lays his right hand on the head of Ephraim. Joseph protests and reminds his father who is the elder son: “Not so, father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” (Genesis 48:18) Jacob replies: “I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he…”

Traditionally, it is understood that the special blessing given to Ephraim would lead to his future rise in leading the Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim became the most populous tribe, and the seat of the powerful northern kingdom’s dynasty. Yet, a careful reading suggests we have the order mixed up. It appears that Ephraim did not become great because Jacob gave him a blessing; rather, Jacob gave him a blessing because he would become great! Jacob told Joseph that he is placing his right hand on Ephraim because the “younger brother will be greater”. That means Jacob foresaw Ephraim’s rise to greatness, and blessed him accordingly.

This might seem trivial, but it is of immense importance. It begs the question: Do the events of today cause the events of tomorrow, or are all the events from past to future already predetermined? Was it Jacob’s blessing that made Ephraim great, or was Ephraim already destined for greatness and Jacob—foreseeing it prophetically—just brings that fact to light? If the latter is the case, what purpose does the blessing even serve? Ephraim would be great regardless! It leads us to the bigger free will dilemma: If we have complete power to choose, and our decisions cause the events of tomorrow, then how can God (or His prophets) foresee the future? How could Jacob see Ephraim’s future greatness if Ephraim had yet to make those choices that led him to greatness? If he was going to be great anyway, did he really have a choice?

Free Will in Space-Time

One classic way of dealing with the free will problem is by putting God outside of time. Of course, God created time and space, and therefore is, by definition, above and outside of them. In other words, God is not bound by time or space. In fact, this is alluded to in His name, the Tetragrammaton (יהוה), which is a fusion of haya (היה), “was”; hov’e (הווה), “is”; and ihyeh (יהיה), “will be” (see Zohar III, 257b). God is that eternal, infinite force that sees past, present, and future simultaneously. It can be depicted in a simple diagram where God is at the apex of a triangle, and time runs along the base of the triangle.

Similarly, another name of God used in the Torah is Makom (מקום), literally “place” or “space”, denoting God’s existence in all space. As explored in the past, in his Understanding the Alef-Beis (pg. 153), Rabbi Dovid Leitner points out something incredible about Makom and space. The gematria of “Makom” is 186. Meanwhile, we measure space in terms of squared units (ie. length × width), such as square feet or square metres. So, if we “square” the letters of the Tetragrammaton:

God “squared” is Makom! In this way, we beautifully see how God’s Name itself teaches us about His transcendence of time and space. And so, since God is everywhere and everywhen, He “knows” every choice being made at the very moment it is being made. God has no affect on a person’s free will whatsoever—He just happens to permeate every second and every millimetre of existence. For God, everything happens simultaneously.

Today, there is a scientific theory growing in popularity that supports this notion. The Block Universe Theory holds that all time and space exist simultaneously, and that there is no past, present, and future—just different parts of the same universe. This is based on Einstein’s special relativity, where time and space are not distinct at all but woven into a singular “fabric” of space-time.

Block Universe Theory (Credit: ABC Science)

Einstein explained gravity by positing that a larger mass will make a greater “dip” in the fabric of space-time, causing smaller objects to spiral around it, like in a funnel. Since space is being warped, and time is woven into space, then time will also be warped by larger masses. This results in a mind-boggling phenomenon known as time dilation, where time can be experienced differently in two places. This is not just a hypothesis anymore, and has been proven in scientific experiments where identical atomic clocks will literally run differently at varying altitudes. (Time dilation was wonderfully depicted in cinema in the film Interstellar, a must-watch!)

According to Block Universe Theory, it would be possible to travel through time (using wormholes in space). However, one would be unable to make any changes since all events are happening simultaneously. In other words, all events to ever take place have already happened, including one’s travelling “back” in time and “changing” something. This brings us right back to where we started:

Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Ephraim’s rise to greatness “centuries later” were actually happening simultaneously. Jacob “foresaw” Ephraim’s ascent because it had already happened, in the same way that God “foresees” everything. There is no past, present, and future. It brings to mind a fascinating (and contentious) study conducted by Professor Leonard Leibovici in 2000-2001.* He had people pray for the recovery of those with blood infections at the Rabin Medical Center in Israel. The only catch was that the prayers were in the year 2000, and the people being prayed for were those at the hospital between 1990 and 1996! These were retroactive prayers, into the past! Leibovici then looked at the data (this was a double-blind, controlled study) and found that those patients that were prayed for had slightly lower mortality rates (28% vs. 30%) and significantly shorter hospital stays. The prayers, apparently, had worked into the past. Of course, as we’ve seen, there is no past anyway. Since all events happen simultaneously, we can understand Leibovici’s results.

Length of hospital stay for those patients prayed for (“intervention”) versus those who were not (“control”).

This has major implications for our own prayers and mitzvot. We often talk about how our prayers and mitzvot affect us and our close ones in the present, bringing more “merit”, helping people heal, etc. Now we can further understand why praying even for those in the past, such as reciting kaddish, can have an impact. It gives us a new way to understand how the merit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom we invoke in our prayers, can “intercede” on our behalf. Our forefathers did not just exist in the past, but exist right now. We can appreciate the Torah not as an ancient text describing long-gone events but rather, as our Sages have insisted all along, relevant right at this very moment and still as “alive” and “current” as ever. When we read Jacob blessing Israel, it is not that Jacob blessed Israel back then, thousands of years ago, but that he is blessing us right now! (And we also now have a scientific explanation for our Sages’ peculiar teaching that ain mukdam u’me’uhar baTorah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”.) With this in mind, our daily Jewish experience becomes tremendously richer and more profound.


*Leibovici, Leonard. “Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial.” British Medical Journal (BMJ). December 22, 2001. 323(7327): 1450–1451. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC61047/

1 thought on “Time, Gravity, and Free Will

  1. Pingback: Secrets of God’s Ineffable Name | Mayim Achronim

Comments are closed.