23. The Pleasure of Choice
When we choose well, we should feel great about ourselves.
G-d's wisdom, however, decreed that for such good [i.e. the pleasure of connecting with G-d] to be perfect, the one enjoying it must be its master. He must be one who has earned it for himself, and not one associated with it accidentally and without reason.
Free will lies at the heart of many of the heated discussions that take place in today's society. How often do we hear of a parent charged with the crime of child abuse, whose defense attempts to exonerate him on the claim that the parent was also abused as a child? Since statistics show over 90 percent of those who are abused as children will themselves grow up to become abusers, it therefore follows that the abuser is not responsible for his decision. It was beyond his control.
Recall that our last class discussed the model that science and psychology propose for the nature of a human being - that there are two possible explanations of what caused this person to abuse his child:
- Given his nature and his past life experiences, it became inevitable that he would abuse his child.
- It was totally random.
In either case, the abuser really had no choice, and it would be cruel to punish someone for a crime beyond his control. That's why most civilized societies make a distinction in meting out punishment for first-degree murder (i.e. premeditated, chosen), vs. second-degree murder (heat of the moment, bordering on unintentional).
On a more personal level, how often do we hear ourselves pleading innocent to our conscience with the same argument? "I suppose I shouldn't have lied to that client, but what could I do? The company put me in a compromising position." This is relating to our own decisions as deterministic. My bad mood, my upbringing, my society – something caused me to lie. My appetite made me break my diet, my friend made me drive too fast, my parents made me impatient...
While it is true that these outside influences have a strong – sometimes overwhelming – effect on us, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves one question: Was it possible for me to have made a different decision? True, a bad upbringing makes it more difficult to make healthy ethical decisions. It creates more confusion and challenge. And in some cases, seemingly impossible.
When the Ramchal talks about being a "master" of our decisions, he means acknowledging the tremendous empowerment that we should feel with every ethical and moral decision. It's up to us. When we choose well, we should really feel great about ourselves and enjoy the choice. When we choose badly, we should avoid the temptation to blame others. The guilt that we feel is a voice within, telling us to take responsibility.
Despite what modern psychology will say, not all guilt is bad. Guilt that paralyzes a person to inaction – that is bad. But guilt that forces us to face reality and to try better next time, is very good. Acknowledging the guilt is the way we tell ourselves, "Come on, you're a good person. You know that you can do better than that!"
The Talmud says: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven."1 This means (as we saw in Chapter One) that G-d is the master controller who wills and sustains the existence of every molecule at every moment. At the same time, there's one, and only one, thing that G-d doesn't dictate – our moral and spiritual choices (i.e. our "fear of Heaven"). I can blame G-d for making me short or naturally hot-tempered. But it's my choice to be bitter about my situation or to try to improve it. At the same time, I have to give G-d credit for making me naturally-gifted in areas where I am strong. But even here I have free will: I need to strive to use those gifts in the best way possible.
Back to the Garden
Now let's go back to one of our original questions on the topic of free will: Could G-d have created me in a way that I would reach my ultimate pleasure without having free will? Doesn't free will make it much more difficult, and even more unlikely, that I would reach the ultimate spiritual pleasure, given that it's up to me and there are no guarantees? Couldn't G-d have made this easier?
The answer lies in a statement the Ramchal made earlier in this chapter, in describing the idea that G-d's purpose in creation was to bestow good on another:
Since G-d desired to bestow good, a partial good would not be sufficient. The good that He bestows would have to be the ultimate good that His handiwork could accept.
In other words, yes: G-d could have created us without free will. But we'd never have the pleasure of earning goodness for ourselves. So from G-d's perspective, free will allows for the deeper pleasure of accomplishment. So it's worth introducing that pleasure into the world – even if it leaves open the possibility that some won't fully achieve it.
Recall our previous discussion of how G-d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a place filled with opportunities for pleasure. At least on a superficial level, the pleasure was available in the form of all types of trees and plants – for beauty, taste and scent. Adam and Eve can just sit around and enjoy their new perfect world. And then G-d does something odd. He places one tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, right in the middle of the garden, and tells Adam and Eve that this one tree they cannot eat from. Not only that, G-d creates some sort of metaphysical serpent whose whole job is to tempt them into eating from the tree!
So Adam and Eve have to deal with the temptation, the moral conflict between following their physical instincts versus their desire to listen to their Creator. Doesn't the existence of this one tree ruin everything? Adam and Eve can't fully relax anymore and enjoy all the other trees! It's like taking a kid into a toy store and telling them that you'll buy them any toy they want – except for that really cool-looking one!
Based on the Ramchal's principle that "G-d will fulfill His purpose of creation by making the best possible world," we must say that this tree actually perfected creation. Every other tree gave Adam the potential for taste, which is nice but fleeting. By Adam and Eve not eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they had the potential for the pleasure of spiritual accomplishment, overcoming their lower selves. That is a much deeper and more fulfilling spiritual pleasure. Ironically then, the Tree of Knowledge afforded them the possibility of more pleasure than any other tree!
- Why do we have a psychological tendency to deny our own free will?
- In what way was it better for Adam and Eve to have the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge?
- Does free will mean that a person can do anything? What are the limits of free will?
- According to the statement in the Talmud, what is really the Torah's definition of free will?
- Based on the Ramchal's definition of free will, would we say that every decision a person makes is an exercise in free will? What about voting for a political party? What about choosing a flavor of ice cream?
- Brachot 30a