Free Will and The Fools of Rome

The Gemora in Avoda Zara says that in the future G-d
is going to take a Sefer Torah in His arms, so to speak, and proclaim that
whoever has fulfilled what is written in it should come forward to claim his
reward. So the nations gather, and the Romans come in first:

He asks them, “For what do you think you deserve reward?”

They answer, “We built marketplaces, bathhouses, bridges…all
so that Klal Yisrael should learn Torah.”

“You are fools,” G-d tells them. “All that you built was for
your own pleasure…Only those with the merit of Torah will be rewarded.” Then the
other nations, the Persians and Babylonians, come in, and they, too, are turned

The Brisker Rav asks: Why did G-d call them fools? He should
call them liars. They didn’t build what they built so that the Jews should learn
Torah. It’s an out-and-out lie. And how could they have the brazenness to stand
in front of G-d and lie like that?

The Brisker Rav answers that the Romans were not liars; they
were absolutely right. HaShem runs the world; and everything that happens
is part of His plan for it. So whatever the Romans built was utilized by
for the fulfillment of His plan that Moshiach will come and
Klal Yisrael
will be able to sit and learn Torah and enjoy Olam
. The Romans had their own purposes; but in the end it really was for
the sake of the Jewish people. Even though people are free to choose between
right and wrong, the outcome, whether their aims are realized or not, is not up
to them.

But the Romans were fools, because they did what they
did for their own benefit, not for Israel. Since the outcome was never in their
control, they were judged only on their decisions and their intentions. Had they
really intended it for the benefit of Israel, they would have deserved the
reward; but since they didn’t, they are fools and unworthy of reward.

We can see this principle at work in the laws of eidim
, conspiring witnesses. Two witnesses testify falsely that Reuven
killed Shimon. In fact, they weren’t even at the scene of the crime the day it
was committed. Then, after the verdict is announced, two more witnesses come and
testify that the first pair of witnesses were actually with them in
another place at the time the crime was committed, and therefore could not have
witnessed the crime to which they testified. The first witnesses are called
eidim zomemim
and are liable for whatever punishment they had conspired to
mete out to the accused. However, this is on condition that Reuven had not been
punished yet. If he was already punished, the conspiring witnesses do not
receive the punishment they had intended to inflict on the vindicated person.

At first glance, this seems absurd. Logic dictates just the
reverse: If they are punished for their false testimony when the accused was not
yet punished, all the more so should they be punished if the accused was
actually punished. The Ramban explains that HaShem would not permit beis din
to execute an innocent person. If the punishment was carried out, then he must
have deserved it. True, they were lying and their testimony is invalid; but that
does not mean that the person was innocent. Thus, their crime is mitigated.
When, however, the witnesses are exposed before the accused is punished, this
indicates that he really was innocent, and so HaShem arranged for him to be
saved. In such a case, the conspiracy of the eidim zomemim is uncovered
in its full wickedness. It emerges, then, that their crime is the conspiracy
itself, the intention to incriminate, not in having the punishment carried out.
For that, indeed, is the limit of free will; to decide, to intend. The result is
not in our control, and therefore we are judged on the decision rather than the

The Rambam says that we have a mitzvah to anticipate
the coming of Moshiach, so that we will be able to sit and learn Torah
and enjoy Olam HaBa, the ultimate purpose of creation. Whatever the
designs of man may be, this is HaShem’s master plan, and it will come to
be in the end. Whatever happens in the world happens only in order to further
design. Therefore, whatever the goyim have done throughout
history—and not only the Romans—was only in order that Klal Yisrael
should sit and learn Torah. They had their purposes, HaShem has His.