Free Will – Controlled Responsibility

By Leibel Estrin


When many people think of “Free Will,” they assume it means the ability to act without constraints or consequences. Unfortunately, that definition causes people to feel that they have the right to do what they want, when they want, and to whomever they want. In essence, free will is a license to do whatever “feels good.”

Judaism takes a much deeper and much more demanding look at free will. Free will is the ability to choose to align (or heaven forbid, not align) our thought, speech, and deed with G-d in any situation we find ourselves.

We can exert control over our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. We can decide whether or not to dwell on or contemplate about a particular thing, speak about someone, or act in some way. If we knowingly choose, we are exerting our free will. If we react, we are not following our free will, but obeying our instincts and desires.

For example, if we’re hungry and we eat, we do not necessarily express free will. When an animal is hungry, it eats.

However, if we’re hungry and we postpone eating to perform some good deed or we give our meal to someone who is needy, we have transcended our natural desire to eat at the moment. This is not asceticism. We will eat, but we will decide upon the time, place and intent behind the act, not our natural inclination.

Furthermore, exerting free will means ensuring that every idea that we contemplate, word, and deed meets the Torah’s code of behavior. If it doesn’t, we will actively refrain from thinking, speaking or acting that way.

Probing deeper, free will means that we have applied our intellect to reign in and control our emotions and transcend our personal desires for good as defined by the Torah and our sages.

If we gave into our passions; or even worse, if we use our intellect to full our selfish desires, we have not exhibited free will. We abandoned our free will. Instead, we have blindly followed the fundamental drives of man for food, shelter, procreation, control/power, and pleasure. From that point, it’s only a matter of time before the person rationalizes all his behaviors.

It is possible for a person to rationalize his behavior and still live an ethical life, yet as the Germans proved in World War II, it is also possible for one to fall lower than the lowest of animals.

Fortunately, even a person who focuses on his own selfish desires can change. In some cases, G-d arranges for an individual or event to affect our lives and help us turn things around. Sometimes, we have to go through many experiences until we learn our lesson.

For example, a thief may believe that he can’t or won’t be caught. If he’s caught once (and he’s smart) he’ll admit his mistake and will not repeat it. Sadly, he may have not learned the lesson and keep stealing until he is caught again. Hopefully, he may eventually regret his previous action to the point where, if he was faced with the opportunity to steal again. If he will overcome his inclination no matter how much he wants or needs the money, he has passed one test[1] Furthermore, he will eventually receive a reward for his righteous act. Not only that, he has overcome his desires and added something “novel” to creation.

All this is very nice, but often, we don’t intend to commit a “sin.” Instead, we are “led astray” by companions (you can’t really call them friends) or by circumstances beyond our control. The non-Jewish world calls this force of evil, Satan. In their view, Satan battles G-d for control of the universe. Judaism rejects this rather simplistic view of good and evil. G-d is the only force in the universe. Nothing else exists outside of G-d. Therefore, nothing can “battle” G-d for control of the universe. Judaism teaches that G-d created the concept of “evil” (or more accurately, G-d created an adversary/adversarial situation) to give us the opportunity to overcome it.

If we empower our yetzer tov (selfless inclination) to control our yetzer hara (selfish inclination), we have exerted our free will. If we actively perform a mitzvah, we actually “create” a good angel (i.e., positive energy).

If we follow our selfish inclination and commit a misdeed, G-d forbid, we “create” a bad angel (negative energy).

Eventually, a Heavenly evaluation is made. Do we deserve a reward for the mitzvah that we did? What type of reward? Do we deserve to go through some type of negative consequence as the result of a transgression? What type of consequence? Eventually, the Heavenly “court” comes to a decision and the appropriate reward or consequence is decreed from Above.

In some cases, the reward is given in this life in the form of children, livelihood, or health. Alternatively, the reward can descend as any one or two of the three. The reward could also be delayed until the person reaches his spiritual resting place after his allotted time on earth has passed. The reward could even be passed to future generations in terms of blessings. A similar evaluation is made regarding the consequences of misdeeds.

The thing to keep in mind is altz mit a cheshbon “Everything is done with a precise calculation.” Every good deed is rewarded, every misdeed is recognized.


An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”

Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here

[1] The Hebrew word for “test” is nisayon, which is similar to the nes, meaning the mast of a ship. Our sages teach us that a test is designed to elevate us the way a mast places a sailor on a higher level so that he can view of the ocean.

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