To reiterate, we alone among all beings are able to draw close to G-d and to
attach onto His presence 1; and we're indeed able to achieve the
sort of moral and spiritual perfection that would allow for that (as well as
the imperfection that would disallow that). But if we’re to achieve that
sort of perfection we’d need to strive for it by our own volition and free
choice 2. Because if we were to somehow come upon perfection by
happenstance, by dint of inborn characteristics, or by legacy, then we
wouldn’t have chosen to achieve it freely, as we must do.
That’s why humankind was originally placed in a situation in which each
person could freely choose between perfection or imperfection and could
achieve either 3, and why each was born with both a yetzer harah
and a yetzer hatov either of which he could choose to favor 4.
1. This chapter encapsulates a lot of what had been said in the previous
one (especially 1:2:5), which is why we referred to this as a reiteration.
These ideas are restated -- better said, underscored here -- because this
chapter, which is entitled “Humankind”, will take what had been said before
about humanity and build on it. In fact, that’s the basic underlying
methodology of Derech Hashem: ideas are offered, expanded upon, and then
further build upon.
2. While the idea of free will was discussed in the previous chapter,
this is the first actual mention of it in Derech Hashem. As was pointed out
in 1:1:2 we’re only free on an ethical, spiritual level. That’s what sets us
apart from all other beings (see Da’at Tevunot 158).
For more on free will see 1:5:4-5, 2:1:3, 2:2:3, 2:4:2, 4:4:1, and 4:6:1
below; Adir Bamarom p. 88; Da’at Tevunot 43-44, 48 (as well as the other
places cited here); Messilat Yesharim, intro.; “Da’at Tevunot Part 2” 4-6,
16, 18 (found in Ginzei Ramchal pp, 21-23, 26, 31); etc.
It’s vital to note, though, that while free will allows us greatness and it
defines the human experience, it’s is only a “temporary” phenomenon and will
be eradicated in the end, when it will no longer be needed (see Da’at
Tevunot 40), since its purpose would already have been served and humanity
will no longer strive toward spiritual excellence of their own volition.
There’s another point to be made. We in the Western world consider ourselves
to be quite free, quite at liberty to do and say as we please. But that's
political freedom rather than the sort of primal, transcendent, moral
freedom which we're granted and would need to bolster in order to achieve
the kind of spiritual perfection we're addressing here.
For the truth be known, our real power lies not in the civic realities and
other circumstances that G-d alone controls. It lies in the freedom we have
to fulfill ourselves on a deeply personal, existential level. And that's
what free will is all about. It touches on your essence rather than your
trappings, your soul's place in the cosmos rather than your personal place
in the world.
3. It’s important to point out that while we were originally “placed in
a situation in which each person could freely choose between perfection or
imperfection and could achieve either”, that changed after Adam and Eve’s
sin, as we’ll see in 2:4:2 below.
4. Yetzer harah is usually translated as "the evil inclination", and
yetzer hatov as "the good inclination". Now in truth, most of us (with
obvious exception) aren't "inclined toward evil"; most can be said to be
inclined toward good. But we do do wrong because of the yetzer harah, which
is a pull downward toward the spiritually mundane, a settling for an
existential B or C. What we're to do then, is to strive to live up to the
demands of the yetzer hatov, the inclination to be truly good (even great)
on the deepest levels, and to thus attach onto G-d.
For more on the yetzer harah and yetzer hatov see 1:4:6, 2:2:2, 2:3:1,
2:6:2, and 4:8:1 below, as well as Adir Bamarom p. 88; Klach Pitchei Chochma
14 (in Ramchal’s own comments); Messilat Yesharim, Ch’s 2, 3, 5; etc
Notice that the rest of the chapter doesn’t expand upon the yetzer
harah-yetzer hatov dynamic, but rather on the body-soul interplay. In short,
that’s because the body tends to encapsulate the expressions and needs of
the yetzer harah while the soul does the same for the yetzer hatov, but much
more can be said about that.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason
Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various
locations on the Web.