See that I place before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing
will come if you obey the commandments of God, your God, which I command you
today; the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of God, your God, but
stray from the way which I command you today, and pursue other gods, which
you have not known. (Devarim 11:26-28)
Of all things in life that is the most taken for granted, free-will has to
come first. It is the trait that best defines what it means to be human, and
yet so few human beings take advantage it, or even use it much on a daily
basis. On the Final Day of Judgment, few of us will escape the shock that
will come with finding out how few free-will choices we actually made
throughout the course of our long lifetimes.
Which, of course, is a problem, since eternal reward in the World-to-Come is
based upon having made good free-will choices. However, in order to make
this world feel like the World-to-Come already, people spend a lot of time
circumventing true free-will choices, avoiding the tougher decisions in
life, whenever possible.
"But I make tons of choices everyday!" you might say, somewhat indignant.
Nothing personal, but there is a difference between simply making a choice,
and making a free-will choice. Animals make choices daily as well, and even
computers too. But, contrary to the belief of animal lovers (I like them
too), and computer lovers (I am one as well), neither goes to the
World-to-Come, because their choices don't count. They are choices, but not
free-will choices, which they have to be in order to be considered moral or
immoral, and relevant to increasing or decreasing a person's portion in the
What is the difference? How does one know if he is making a free-will choice
This is an excellent question, one of the most important a person can ask.
Indeed, all of life comes down to understanding the answer to this question,
believe it or not, and even religious people often take it for granted,
which is why they too may too few free-will choices on a daily basis, even
though their lifestyle promotes it.
To make the answer as clear as possible, let's break it down into parts.
First of all, one should have a working definition for both parts, free and
will. Since the simpler term to define is will, it is a good idea to do so
first, which according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, is defined
as: used to express desire, choice, willingness, consent, or in negative
But, in life, it is possible to make a person go against his will. For
example, one does not want to give his wallet to a thief, but the knife he
is brandishing compels him to do so. One may not want to give charity, but
the embarrassment, or guilt, from not giving compels him to give anyhow. In
each case he will give that which he wishes to keep for himself, and he'll
feel lousy for it.
One might think, therefore, that free-will means, free his will. Protect him
from thieves, so that he can keep his wallet. Ask him for charity, but in a
way that it cannot be known that he refused to give. Free our will from the
will of others, and our lives can become dreamlike, especially, many people
say, if that other's will happens to be God's.
The Talmud, of course, disagrees. And, it happens to mention an interesting
example to prove its point regarding the matter of divorce, which, as many
probably already know, has to originate with the husband. In Jewish law, a
woman cannot sue for divorce, even in cases where clearly she ought to.
Today that presents a big problem for some women, but in the old days, there
was a way to deal with it:
A letter of divorce under coercion is sometimes valid and sometimes
invalid, the former when the man declared, "I am willing," and the latter,
when he did not declare, "I am willing." For it was taught: "He shall offer
it" (Vayikra 1:3) teaches that the man is coerced. It might [be assumed that
the sacrifice may be offered up] against his will, therefore it says,
"according to his will." How then [are the two texts reconciled]? He is
subjected to pressure until he says, "I am willing." It is likewise in the
case of letters of divorce for women: The man is subjected to pressure until
he says, "I am willing." (Yevamos 106a)
The question, of course is, how does this help? It certainly helps the
woman, which is great, but it does not help the halachah, which is not
great. For, everyone knows that the man is being forced to give the Get
against his will, otherwise he would have already given it to his wife
without any trouble.
No, says the Talmud, revealing instead what might be called a Chiddush
Atzum-an amazingly novel idea. For, explains, the Talmud, in truth the man
would much rather give his wife her Get, because that is the right thing,
the moral thing to do. And, assumes the Talmud, people inherently want to do
the moral thing, because, as the Torah says, they were made in the image of God.
Then what goes wrong? Elsewhere, the Talmud states in the Name of God:
"I created the yetzer hara, and I created the Torah as its spice."
In other words, the yetzer hara interferes with man's moral imperative, and
though some people can still follow through and do the right thing anyhow,
others have a more difficult time knowing who is who and what is what. In
such people, the yetzer hara creates such overwhelming emotions that the
person becomes selfish and spiritually shortsighted until he comes to
believe that his will is really not to be cooperative.
For such people, the Talmud advises, a little coercion, by the right people
at the right time, goes a long way to silence their yetzer hara just long
enough for them to listen to their true will. The coercion frees them, and
their will, from the will of the yetzer hara, allowing them to act in a
Godly manner, as, and this is the amazing underlying assumption, people
truly wish to do.
Hence, free-will is a will that is free to do the moral thing. This may be
easy for people to do sometimes, or it may be extremely difficult. But, at
the end of the day, a will that is free is one that can decide to do the
moral act in spite of all the pressures, from within or from without. And,
it is for this which a person is rewarded in the World-to-Come.
Fine. But that is not the end of the discussion, far from it. Rather, there
is still the all-important issue of what is moral and what is not. And,
furthermore, who says that the yetzer hara even exists in the first place,
that we can just go ahead and make him into the bad guy? Maybe what the
Talmud calls the yetzer hara is really our true will, and by spicing it with
Torah, we are really just stifling our inner and most basic drives, and that
certainly can't make for a very healthy society, can it?
And, for that matter, argue the atheists, free-will, if it even exists in
the first place, something Social Darwinists would like to argue, may be
just the opposite, one that is unhampered by social mores and judicial
systems. Religion, they argue vehemently, does not come to free will, but to
enslave it, and to that end, they are at war with all religious systems.
Except, of course, their own, but that is another discussion. The main point
here is that, even according to such people, for free-will to exist, one is
required to believe in three things. First of all, one must believe in an
Objective Truth, without which, everything is just a matter of opinion.
Without an Objective Truth, there is no right or wrong, which makes good and
evil completely subjective, and therefore defined only by people.
Hence, though you may not like what Stalin or Hitler did, y"s, you cannot
say that they were wrong. The best an Atheist can say is, "Keep those people
away from me!" But they cannot say that they were morally wrong, since in an
atheistic world, such terms get dropped from the dictionary.
However, as we see daily, lots of people do believe in some form of God, and
therefore, some form of objective truth, but they do what they want anyhow.
That is because they also believe that God keeps His objective truth to
Himself, leaving man to work out the details of life on his own, which,
according to history, he has not been so good at.
Therefore, free-will necessitates not only a belief and knowledge of an
Objective Truth, but also a belief and knowledge of that objective truth. At
some point, in some way, it has to have communicated to man and shared with
him, so that man can have a moral measuring stick against which to determine
the right or wrong of his actions.
Fine, again. But even if people pass Grade 1 and Grade 2, they sometimes
flunk-out anyhow, thanks to the human trait of rationalization. In everyday
life, religious people still sin, and at the extreme end, people murder
ruthlessly in the Name of God, and as an extension of what they perceive is
His will. The number one threat to mankind today, Fundamentalist Islam, is
the foremost example of this.
Hence, free-will requires one more fundamental belief: man has a yetzer
hara. And, not only does he have a yetzer hara, but it has the ability to
impersonate us, or at least hijack our brain. That is what the Talmud says:
A person does not sin unless a spirit of insanity enters him. (Sotah
The spirit of insanity, of course, is the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara
himself is not insane, merely doing his job of making our lives spiritually
challenging. But, once he succeeds at his job well enough to make us believe
that his will is our will, then we start to look the part of an insane
person, sacrificing long-term gain for short term and trivial pleasures.
All of this is included in Moshe Rabbeinu's appeal to the Jewish people. He
was telling them to make sure that everyone is real with the three
conditions of free-will, so that they can exercise theirs, and not become
victims of stupidity and the yetzer hara, like trillions of people have done
throughout the last 5,770 years.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.