This uniquely human endeavor spells the difference between life and death.
by Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“How precious is man, created in the image of God.” (Talmud – Avot 3:18)
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
Unlike other creations, the human being has free will. Within this divine spark lies our potential to shape and change the world.
Proper use of free will beautifies and perfects. Misuse of free will plunders and destroys.
It is a uniquely human endeavor to learn how to use free will properly.
Awareness of Free Will
A homeless person is out on a cold, dirty street, pushing a broken shopping cart loaded with meager belongings. He desperately begs for money, and sifts through garbage pails for a remnant of food.
Now suppose you give him 10 million dollars (tax-free). Imagine what he will do: rent a warm home; buy new clothes, stock up on groceries…
But there’s one catch: You hide the money in the bottom of his bag, and he doesn’t know he is shlepping around the 10 million dollars. So he lives with the same misery, the same despair.
Free will grants us enormous power and potential. Yet if we don’t realize we have this power, we cannot exploit it. We may live the life of a beggar, when in fact we are royalty. The Talmud says: Greater than the gift of free will, is that God told us we have free will.
What is Free Will?
It is a sweltering summer day. You trudge past the ice cream parlor. Wow – 10 new flavors! Special of the day! Frozen yogurt, too! You go inside and proclaim: “I’ll have double-fudge chocolate, please.”
Is picking chocolate over the vast array of other flavors a “free will choice?” No. It is simply the exercise of a preference, just as a cow chooses to eat hay instead of grass.
“Free will” refers to the type of decision which is uniquely human: a moral choice.
But don’t mistakenly think that morality is the choice between “good and evil.”Everyone chooses to be “good” – even the most evil, immoral people. Hitler rationalized that the Jews were the enemies of the world, so in his mind he justified that as doing “good.”
Rather, free will is the choice between life and death. As the Torah says: “I have put before you, life and death… Choose life so that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19)
The Escape Route
Does anyone really choose death over life?!
We all want to be great. But achieving our goals takes a lot of effort. So we get distracted and take the easy route instead. The escape route.
It’s Sunday afternoon. You’re bored. You grab the remote and slump down into the couch. You could be using your time to learn and grow. But instead you choose the easier option of painlessly passing the afternoon… escaping into the world of TV.
Each day we are confronted with many escape routes. Daydreaming, drugs, checking our email for the seventh time this hour…
Killing time is suicide on the installment plan. And suicide is the most drastic and final form of escape. Consider:
A man is about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The television crews are on the scene. “The public has a right to know. Why are you jumping?”
“I lost 10 million dollars in the stock market! I’m devastated. I’m wiped out.”
“Do you have anything left?”
“Well, between the Chateau in Switzerland, the yacht, and the Rolls Royce, I guess I’m still worth about a million and a half.”
“A million and a half! For goodness sake, that’s more money than I’ll make in a lifetime. You could really live it up! Besides, you made 10 million dollars once. So stick around. You could you make another $10 million.”
“True. But do you know how painful it is to lose 10 million dollars?”
Zoom – he jumps.
Why did he jump? He was relatively wealthy, and by his own admission he could have made more money. But he only focused on the overwhelming pain of his loss. So for this man, it was even more painful to face his problems and challenges.
“To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by taking arms against fate… to end it all.” – William Shakespeare
Judaism says the opposite. Greatness lies in how we resolve conflicts – in using our free will to grow – not to quit. To face reality – not to escape. To live and not to die. When we escape problems, we escape the chance of becoming great. It’s a constant battle every moment of our lives. Here’s how to win:
Five Stages of Free Will Struggle
Level One: Self-Awareness
Become aware of the choices you’re making. Life is a constant stream of decisions. Once you become sensitive to the fact that you are constantly making choices, then you can monitor them. That’s using your free will actively, not passively.
Don’t let decisions just “happen.” Put your periscope up. Ask yourself:
Why am I reading this article right now? Am I just surfing the web? Or do I have a specific goal?
Your decisions shape your life and determine your destiny. Take charge. If you don’t, you’re just a pedestrian watching as life passes you by.
Level Two: Be Your Own Person
Don’t accept society’s beliefs as your own unless you’ve thought them through and agree with them. Live for yourself, not for society.
Evaluate your past decisions. Start each day anew. Don’t remain bound to guidelines and determinations you made years ago, or even to ones that you made yesterday.
A particular career that you chose in college may no longer be the best thing for you today.
Just because you decided at one time that there’s no God, does not mean you can’t find more evidence today and make a more informed decision.
Check your assumptions and make sure that they are really yours and not someone else’s. Don’t be a puppet of society.
Level Three: Distinguish Between Body and Soul
Within each of us, a fierce battle is raging constantly. It’s a battle between the cravings of our body, versus the aspirations of our soul.
There are times when you know objectively that something is good for you, but your physical desires get in the way and distort your outlook.
Here’s how the battle-lines break down:
BODY: Gravitates toward transitory comforts and sensual pleasures. Desires to quit, to dream, to drown in passions, to procrastinate. Says: “Give me some food, warmth, a pillow – and let me take life easy.” Looks for the escape of sleep… slipping away into death
SOUL: Seeks understanding, meaning, productivity, accomplishment, permanence, greatness. Confronts challenges. Embraces reality and truth.
The Midrash tells of a group of soldiers returning from a victorious war. They are marching and singing, flushed with victory. A wise man meets them and says, “Friends, you are returning from a minor battle. Now you are going to face a major war. The war within yourselves.”
This is the battle of the free will. Even when you have just won the battle, the enemy is always in your camp, beside you constantly. No matter how far you run, he’ll come after you.
Sometimes we can actually hear ourselves fighting it out. Here’s a conversation you may have had with yourself:
Soul: “Let’s set some goals.”
Body: “Leave me alone, I’d rather sleep.”
Soul: “Come on, let’s be great!”
Body: “Relax, what’s the big deal if we wait til tomorrow?”
What’s going on? Are you schizophrenic? Nope. Just battling opposing sides within yourself.
Don’t be ambushed by your body. Identify whether it’s your body or your soul talking. Until then, you don’t even know why you’ve made a decision.
Avoid the escape routes. Choose what is meaningful and productive. Choose life.
Level Four: Identify With Your Soul, Not Your Body
Point to yourself. Who are you?
Judaism says that your soul is the real you.
Body says: “I’m hungry.”
Soul says: “My body needs some food.”
Body says: “I’m tired.”
Soul says: “My body needs some sleep.”
Attain inner peace. Achieve mastery over your body by identifying with your soul.
The Talmud teaches: “The righteous talk to their bodily desires, while evil people let their desires talk to them.” The question is who’s running the show? Who will dictate what you’re going to do?
You are trying to diet and someone offers you a luscious rich slice of chocolate fudge cake. Your first reaction is “No, I shouldn’t, I’m on a strict diet.” But as you gaze at the cake, your body speaks persuasively: “Just a little piece, it won’t hurt. Start the diet tomorrow.”
Great strategy – score one for the body!
Notice how the body doesn’t say “Forget the diet, eat the cake, be fat.” The body knows that you’ll reject that reasoning altogether.
Instead, the body lets you believe you can give in just a tiny bit, yet still be in control. But the body is relentless, and each time you give in, it will be harder to resist the next time.
So what’s a good counter-attack?
Beat the body at its own game. Coax the body the same way that it coaxes you.
You want to keep to an exercise routine? Don’t tell your body: “From now on, every morning, 50 push ups.” Instead tell it: “We’ll exercise for five minutes. Then we’ll have some cake.”
A jogger, is out for the first time on a long run. The body protests: “Don’t be a masochist… we’ll have a heart attack… we’ll never make it beyond this corner… stop already!” Only firm willpower can squelch the body’s resistance and get it to comply. How? By constantly reassuring it of the higher value of being in shape, thin and healthy. “This is what you really want… Think how much better you’ll feel… You’ll be respected… Imagine how much longer you may live!”
Two months later, if you skip one day of jogging, the body says, “Hey, I missed the pleasure of that workout, what’s going on?”
The only way to win is to get to the body to desire what the soul wants. Because there’s no way you’ll ever achieve peace by giving in to the body. Your soul will simply not give up. Never.
But the body can go along with the soul. And although it “hurts” a little to walk away from a lusting, we can survive without it. It’s the only practical choice. Real peace comes only when the body desires the soul’s success.
Level Five: Make Your Will God’s Will
The highest stage of free will is not when you ask yourself, “What does my soul want?” It’s when you ask yourself, “What does God want?” When that is your prime interest, you will have achieved the highest form of living. You are using your free will to merge with the most meaningful and powerful force in the universe:the transcendental.
Free will is the choice between life and death. Attach yourself to God and you will be attached to eternity – the ultimate form of life itself.
Make your will His will. If you do, you’ll be a little less than God Himself.Partners in changing the world.
Free Will Summary
Level One: Don’t be a sleepwalker. Make decisions actively.
Level Two: Don’t be a puppet of society’s goals, or a slave to your old decisions.
Level Three: Be aware of the conflict between the cravings of your body and the aspirations of your soul.
Level Four: Identify with your soul, not your body.
Level Five: Make your will God’s will.