Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for answering my question last week concerning the sitra ahara. I have one more question, if I may:
Do I have an alternative open to me that is not a gift from God? I am thinking, in this regard, about the concept of free will, and whether or not such a thing is possible, if every alternative I have traces back to God. I understand that I have choices, but I see none that were not granted to me by God, including my infamous ability to be contrary.
Free will is considered to be, in Judaism, the very foundation of mankind and what separates man from other animals that operate instinctively, without real choices. There is discussion among the commentaries as to what level of free will the first man, Adam, had. On one hand, Adam had profound clarity as to the existence of G-d and the fulfillment of His will, which would seem to eliminate his ability to choose freely between right and wrong. How many people, for example, would bite into that ham sandwich if G-d Himself were sitting at the table watching? On the other hand, Adam couldn’t have been bereft of free choice because that would essentially render him a robot, leaving no purpose in his creation.
To reconcile this dilemma, they explain that the first man had free choice; we see, in fact, that he used it to sin. But his free choice was very different than ours. His choices, at that time, were like solving a math problem. There’s no “evil inclination” to mess up on a math problem, but mistakes can be made nonetheless. For reasons beyond the scope of this column, Adam made an “honest mistake,” but a fatal one nonetheless.
After eating the forbidden fruit, things became very different. Now the choices are not purely intellectual, but clouded by lusts and desires. After the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we have what is called a yetzer hara, or internal inclination to evil, which struggles with our yetzer hatov, our inclination to do good.
Just as no two faces are alike, no two people are dealt the same hand of cards in the struggle between good and evil. Every individual possesses character traits different from every other who ever did, or will, live.
Judaism teaches that there are arenas in our lives where we are to use our free will, and areas within which we have no control. We can’t choose to have high intelligence or the lack of it. We can’t control if we’ll be large or small, or our looks. We can’t even choose which character traits we have or lack. What we can choose is what to do with the traits that we do have. The Talmud says that if one was born with the inclination to be a murderer, he shouldn’t try to uproot it, as his nature will eventually get the better of him. He should, rather, direct those feelings to use them in a positive way, to fulfill a mitzvah. He can become a kosher ritual slaughterer, or perhaps a mohel.
Everything truly does revert back to G-d, but G-d Himself wanted that we should have free choice. One reason this is so essential to our very creation and being is that G-d wanted to create man in His image. This is difficult to understand, since we believe that G-d has no physical “image.” The Kabbalistic sages explain this as referring to G-d’s spiritual image. The Torah is specific when it says that man was created in the image of “E-lohim,” that Name of G-d referring to His power and dominion over creation. G-d’s desire was that we should be in His image in regard to that power and control over the world. Now that we have that power, it’s up to us to use it to perfect the world, to perform tikkun olam, and not to destroy it!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,