One evening last week I took a train home from Hertzlia. The timetable said the train would depart at 9:50, and I got to the station at 9:30, in plenty of time. I was prepared with magazine to read while waiting. Also on the platform was a lovely young woman (LYW) with a small dog, a soldier, and a couple of kippa-wearing young men (KWYM) carrying briefcases and chatting together on the bench we all shared. Five minutes later, a decent-looking fellow (DLF) in his 40's arrived.
After a few minutes of impatient pacing in front of us, DLF walks over to KWYM and politely but quite loudly asks them in Hebrew if they would please answer a question: how could it be that God knows everything and still could or would give men free will? Because it just didn't make any sense to him. How could a man have free will and yet God would know in advance what he was going to do? What was free about that?
The assembled group is stunned. Is this man a nut? Who else would ask perfect strangers such a serious and deep question? But he seems rational, respectful even, clean, not drunk or stoned. KWYM #1 replies a bit defensively that he is not a rabbi, that this is a question that requires a rabbi to deal with. We're all a little disappointed at his cop-out.
DLF was not to be discouraged and repeated his question, becoming slightly more irritated with KWYM for not giving him a satisfactory answer, and looking around to us for encouragement. I was barely following the Hebrew and fascinated. The LYW was smiling, obviously enjoying the back-and-forth, but not about to get swept up into the conversation. The small dog went into hiding under our bench.
KWYM #1 repeatedly insisted that a rabbi was required, and looked around desperately for one to appear. Miraculously, when we weren't looking another KWYM, #3,had sat down behind us, so #1 tapped on #3's shoulder, hoping he would turn around and supply an answer. We were all waiting to hear the reply of KWYM #3, but instead of any wise words, #1 recognized #3 as an old yeshiva classmate of his and there followed the conversation one has when one bumps into an old yeshiva classmate (I imagine): How are you? What are you doing now? Are you married yet? (No) How is so-and-so, our mutual friend, etc. etc.
Meanwhile KWYM #2 decides to make a call on his cellphone. I'm hoping he's calling his rabbi to get an urgent answer to DLM's question, but he's just calling home to tell them to save him some food, he's very hungry.
By this time 9:50 has come and gone, and no train has appeared. At 10:00 a train approaches in and whizzes by...an express, not stopping. By 10:05 DLM has abondoned the free will question and announces a little-known fact: if the train is 20 or more minutes late we are entitled to a full refund on our tickets, which he learned from his wife who works for the railroad, but don't tell anyone how we found out this secret because he doesn't want his wife to get in trouble. No one leaves to get a refund.
Finally, at 10:15, our train pulls in. Our little group disbands, without ever finding out why God gave man free will. But for 45 minutes my magazine went unread.
*Somebody - was it Sholom Aleichem? - said this about life in the shtetl.