Free Choice, Divinely Assisted
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
PILOT OR CO-PILOT
A few years ago, I quoted a saying of mine to a fourth grade Hebrew school class, “If G-d is your co-pilot, you might want to change seats.” A precocious girl challenged my quip saying “What about free choice?” I dismissed her comment then because she could be argumentative, but after having learned some deep Chassidus, I began to think differently. Just how do we balance our realm of free choice in this world, and what is G-d’s role in how we choose?
Much ink has been spilled attempting to resolve the paradox of G-d’s Omniscience and human free choice. I would like to approach this question, not from a philosophical position, but from an emotional and psychological perspective. I believe that a Hassidic approach to examining the divine-human inter-relationship can help us overcome some of the stress that arises in the large and small decisions of everyday life.
I have come across a perspective that I think can bring more joy and equanimity into our lives: an idea that can relieve much of the tension that pervades the lives even of people who are wholeheartedly committed to Judaism.
HELP FROM ABOVE
The primary Chassidic text of Tanya begins with the Talmudic quote: “Be righteous and don’t be wicked’…According to Chabad sources, this oath is administered after the Torah is taught in the womb. Unlike the pre-natal Torah, the oath is not forgotten. But what purpose does this oath serve? The masters tell us that it is a ‘nesinas koach,’ a giving of strength, an empowering to ‘do the right thing.’
In the Torah portion of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 30:19) we read: “Life and death I have set before you, the blessing and the curse, and you should choose life…”Rashi comments on the words, “choose life,” ‘like a father who tells his child, ‘choose this nice portion of my inheritance, places the child on that portion and says, ‘this you should choose…’ This teaching, on one hand tells us that the choice is ours, but on the other hand suggests that G-d plays an important role in our choice. So indeed it does seem that G-d is our co-pilot here. But what role exactly does G-d play that still allows us to retain a range of free choice?
How much do we feel G-d’s tangible presence in our lives? Even Jews who speak often and deeply about G-d, Jews who speak regularly and sincerely to G-d, Jews who continually talk about Hashgacha Pratis, (individual divine providence) and say BH, and IYH, -Blessed be G-d and G-d willing- may still lack an important principle. It is clear that in the struggle between body and soul, we cannot choose one over the other, since we comprise both.
“TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM”
This perspective is from the Rashab, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, about my favorite holiday, Shavuos. I was intrigued by the teaching about the Jews staying up all night because they thought they could receive Torah more completely in a disembodied state- more like the angels. As the last Chabad Rebbe pointed out, the intention of this Dor Daya, (knowledgeable generation) had to be holy, because the sages say, ‘Sheina shel Atzeres areiva,’ the sleep of that night of Shavuos was pleasant, and no flies even bothered them. They were not wrong in recognizing that human nature in its physical form presents a constraint to one’s spiritual aspirations.
However, there is a custom that is a remedial measure: to stay up all night before the morning of reading the Ten Commandments to correct the oversleeping. This custom highlights that the Torah was meant to be brought down to earth, as in the famous debate between Moshe and the angels. As a first grader once replied when I asked why the angels didn’t want the Torah to be brought down to earth, he innocently, but with metaphoric accuracy, answered; ‘Because it would get dirty.’ Even so, G-d prefers an imperfect human attempt to keep the Torah than a more flawless angelic connection. As the famous line in the Leonard Cohen song Anthem, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
The Rashab addresses the morning of revelation itself: The Talmud quotes in tractate Shabbos page 88 that with the recital of each commandment, ‘parcha nishmasam,’ the souls of the Jews flew out of their bodies. So G-d had to restore them to life with ‘Tal shel Techiya,’ the Dew of Resurrection, the dew which would bring about a state wherein the soul and the body could co-exist fully. The Rashab asks the logical question: If the Sinai Revelation was too much for them to handle and still stay in their physical forms, how could the Dew of Resurrection which was an even higher revelation, accomplish the return of the soul to their bodies? He answers with a fundamental Chassidic principle related to the idea that ‘the higher the source, the further down it can travel’. Hence, though the revelation at Sinai came from a very exalted place, it was still mere revelation, whereas the Dew of Resurrection came from the Essence of the Divine.
TRANSCENDING MUTUAL EXCLUSION
From a place of Essence, there is no barrier of spirit and matter, and there is no friction between body and soul. G-d in Essence, is beyond both spirit and matter. This idea is similar to the principle that mitzvos in the physical world are the highest expression of connection with G-d because they represent Essence permeating material existence. And of course we could not perform any mitzvah without the combined effort of body and soul together. Still, in the course of life, like the exclusivity of wave and particle being simultaneously observable, we seem to be in a constant struggle between matter and spirit where each seems to need to yield to the nature of the other.
Here is where the Rashab’s teaching speaks to me. It says that the divine light that fills the world is also with me in my inner conflict between the yetzer tov and yetzer harah, -the inclination towards good and the inclination towards bad- and between my animal nature that seeks primarily personal pleasure, and my divine soul that wants to act for the higher good of serving G-d. Now I have a clearer understanding of the saying of the sages: ‘If G-d does not assist a person, he or she cannot overcome his/her yetzer harah.’ Perhaps it’s like the Chassidic idea that when one Jew helps another, there are two yetzer tovs against one yetzer harah. This happens because the animal soul of the person struggling is not interested in being helped, but his nefesh Elokis, his divine soul, is. Therefore one’s own nefesh Elokis can align with the divine soul of the person who needs help. So if this is true about a human being assisting, how much more is this true about divine aid! If not for G-d’s help, we would more often than not, be trapped in this tug of war between the pull of the body and the call of the soul.
MIND THE GAP
What does this have to do with the Dew of Resurrection? Well, if as in a pre-Sinai state, there is a struggle or at least a gap between spirit and matter, we still need the exalted level of the dew to bring about the harmony between the body and soul. Though Sinai represents a potential healing of that gap, there is in the world, as well as in the Torah, continuing resistance to closing that gap. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron provide an excellent example. When they entered the Holy of Holies without permission, their souls flew into the light and left their bodies behind. Similarly, we are taught that even the leaders of the generation of the desert were afraid to enter the land because it was, ‘Eretz Ocheles Yoshveha,’ a land that consumes its inhabitants. On the other hand, there were many people throughout history who succumbed solely to the desires of the body.
Therefore, it is clear that some higher assistance is needed on an ongoing basis, not just to maintain a balance but to ‘marry’ the body and soul to their higher purpose. And if we are meant to experience Sinai anew every day, as Rashi says in Exodus 19:1, then we must also have access to the Dew of Resurrection each time. The Rebbe pointed out- The giving of the Torah will not happen again, and everything was included in that revelation. So, if that Dew is available to us, as Chassidus refers to in the context of the daily prayer of Techiyas hameisim, resurrection of the dead, then each day we can draw from that divine assistance which can assist us to heal (rofei cholim) the tension and conflict between body and soul!
HANDS ON PERSPECTIVE
Let’s return to the comment of Rashi on the phrase ‘Choose Life.’ The last Rebbe makes a very subtle observation: the first time the father directs the child to a good selection, he uses the word ‘chelek yafeh,’ a nice portion. The second time when the child is guided to place the father’s hand on the correct portion, he calls it a ‘goral’, an allotment. The Rebbe explains the difference along the lines of our focus: A portion still implies a dualistic tension between different sections. An allotment, in contrast, means something aligned with one’s destiny, where there are no competing interests. When we ‘choose our destiny,’ there is a commitment that is not as likely to be drowned out by distractions or competing interests. And, I believe, the ‘Dew of Resurrection’ provides just that ongoing aid.
What happens without this awareness of divine aid in our lives? When we feel the struggle and are discouraged by the thought that either choice we make-when we have to choose between pleasure or purpose, or instant or long term gratification, the other part of us may still feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled. Some examples are:
*A friend needs our help but at the same time, we may be feeling needy ourselves.
*We should be going to shul but sleeping late is so beckoning.
*Someone asks us to teach them something but we are already quite familiar with the subject and would prefer something new.
*There is an important Tzedakah-charity request- but we are feeling our own coffers pinched.
If we are not aware of the dynamic of the empowering oath before birth, and the ‘Dew of Resurrection’ as well as the divine hand saying ‘Choose Life,’ then either choice is likely to make us feel deprived, guilty or resentful. This is after all a world of polarities where it seems that we are trapped in a tug of war between opposites. Enter this life giving dew and, like the empowering oath to the soul, everything shifts. We can retain our pride in the right decision with the humility that (Kiddushin 30) ‘If G-d were not assisting us, we could not overcome the pull toward the less optimal choice.’ And if it is an action that involves putting time and energy into a physical mitzvah, we can rejoice in the fact that we are drawing the Essence of G-d not only into our lives, but into the entire world, into all parts of creation!
Once in my youth, I was drawn to do something that I knew would be pleasurable, but also wrong. It happened to be the Fourth of July. At the very last moment before giving in to the temptation, I said to myself, ‘Today is a day of liberation; how can I be a slave to my urges?’ Indeed the sages tell us that ‘there is no one freer, than one immersed in Torah.’
This outlook may also shed light on the concept in the Talmud that the completion of Matan Torah was actually on Purim. As the Maharal of Prague explains, the revelation at Sinai was so intense that it ‘compelled’ the Jews to accept the Torah. On Purim on the other hand, there was a ‘hester panim’ a concealment of the divine Presence. Still, no Jew renounced Judaism in spite of the threat of a ‘final solution.’ This steadfast dedication may explain the overwhelming joy of Purim; a joy that, like the Dew of Resurrection at Matan Torah, embodies the peace between spirit and matter. Thus both Shavuos and Purim express the essence of the soul that was aligned with the Essence of G-d!
Yehudis has been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and in the Midwest. She has been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. Her articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications and are also available online.