Someone once asked the Rebbe how free will works. He answered him straightforwardly: a person has in his ability to simply choose. If he wants to, he does something, if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t do it.
I have recorded this because it is very necessary for many people to know. A lot of people are very confused because they have gotten very used to their actions and habits for many years, and it seems to them as if they don’t have freedom to choose anymore and aren’t able to change their ways. But the truth is not so. Every person certainly always has freedom to choose in everything. A person acts the way he wants to.
Understand this very well.
Likutei Moharan II 110
Every lesson in Likutei Moharan is in essence a prescription for our spiritual maladies. Sometimes, it takes a little work on our part to try to understand what spiritual problem the Rebbe is addressing in a specific lesson. In this short Torah, however, Reb Noson tells us exactly in what the Rebbe wants to help us.
Most people are convinced that they are victims of fate. Even if we accept that we must all rise above our surroundings and situation and to still do the best that we can do, we still fall into another trap: We get into the habit of making wrong decisions. After some time, the habits become so strong that we think that they are unbreakable. We feel as if we are being schlepped to do what we don’t want to do. We feel that we just can’t do the things we really want to. We think that have lost the freedom to choose.
Reb Noson realized just how many people are confused and don’t realize that we can never lose our freedom to act according to how we want. Yes, the more we fall into habits the harder it is to break them. But no matter how difficult it may become, we are always left with ability to make the final decision: will I do it or not?
But even after the Rebbe answered for us that choosing is so simple, we still don’t fully understand how we are supposed to proceed. For example, we all know that the Rebbe taught that it’s impossible to accomplish anything and achieve any heights in Avodas Hashem without Hisbodedus, praying and begging Hashem that we merit coming close to Him and be saved from sin. We also find that our Siddur is full of prayers for success in Torah study and the battle with our Yetzer.
Reb Noson in Likutei Halachos, Pikadon 3:7, relates how he asked this question of the Rebbe. Doesn’t a person always have freedom to choose? The Rebbe didn’t answer him straight, as if to say that it’s a good question, but even though he can’t answer and clarify the matter for him, we still have to pray. We have to have faith and trust in Chazal and the Tzaddikim who all prayed for success in Avodas Hashem and guide us to do the same.
Not only that, but we find that in Hil’ Birchas Hamazon 4:20, that although we always have freedom of choice, however, what that choice will be is something else entirely:
”The main pride which Hashem takes is in the brazenness and stubbornness of a Jewish person in Avodas Hashem… and the main stubbornness is in the aspiration which is the main way to overcome all the obstacles and accomplish what we want in Avodas Hashem. Even if a person will be the most stubborn possible in Avodas Hashem, there will still certainly be such obstacles which are impossible to break… even if a person will be stubborn a thousand times over, if there is an ocean in front of him and there are no ships, what will all his stubbornness help him?… The main stubbornness must be in our desire for Avodas Hashem that no matter what, never let the aspiration weaken even if confronted with thousands and tens of thousands of obstacles which seem unbreakable in any way, continue to yearn ever stronger…”
In Hil’ Arev 3:7, we find that “it’s impossible to ever quash a Jew’s longing for holiness, because sometimes the forces of evil can overcome and prevent someone from performing a Mitzvah, or trip him up in a sin, but the desire can never be taken away.” We see that sometimes a person does lose his ability to choose whether or not to do the right thing and keep away from wrong.
But Reb Noson (Pikadon 3:8-9) does let us in a little on a deeper understanding of what’s going on, basing himself on the Rebbe’s teaching in LKM I 64, that there are two types of difficulties which a person encounters in his faith, those questions which a person can use his mind to find an answer for, and those which it’s impossible to answer and he must rely on faith alone.
Reb Noson explains that there are also two types of difficulties a person encounters in his Avodas Hashem. There’s the simple Torah study and performance of Mitzvos, which parallels questions in faith which someone can use his mind to answer. In such matters, a person has clear freedom and ability to choose to do the right thing and keep away from sin.
But there’s also the confusion and obstacles which a person doesn’t have the ability to deal with directly. In these situations, all a person can do is pray, to express his faith that Hashem is the one who gave him these obstacles, and He is here with him throughout this ordeal. The free choice which a person has then is in his ability to pray, beg, and scream out to Hashem to be saved from the Yetzer Hara.
Since the crux of all Avodas Hashem is Emunah, faith and prayer, there will always be some things in which the only choice we will have is whether or not we are ready to give ourselves up to Hashem and pray for success, as Reb Noson writes, “In reality, this is the real freedom of choice, to be able to choose to rely only on faith and to pray and beg Hashem very much… Therefore one who accustoms himself to pray and beg Hashem to merit coming close to Him and to Avodah, with this itself he is taking advantage of his freedom to choose, by choosing true life, the way of faith and prayer, ‘the way of faith I have chosen’. “
Reb Noson is telling us that although we of course always have the freedom to choose, but the difficulty of that choice is not in our hands, and neither is our range of choices. But we will always have the choice of coming closer to Hashem. Sometimes it will be by choosing to do something which we have the ability to do, or not doing what we shouldn’t. Very often it will be by choosing to continue to long for Hashem and His Avodah, and continuing to pray and beg that we be successful in it.
Reb Nosson sums it up in Hil’ Matana 5:10, which is based on LKM I 22. The Rebbe reveals that when Klal Yisroel said Naaseh V’Nishma, we will do what the Torah says and we will listen, Naaseh was referring to keeping the Mitzvos and Nishma to our prayer and longing to do more. Klal Yisroel received as a reward two crowns, one for Naaseh and one for Nishmah. After the Sin of the Golden Calf we lost the crown of Naaseh.
Reb Noson writes: “We lost the crown of Naaseh in our sinfulness, and now we can’t perform a single Mitzvah with perfection… many Mitzvos can’t be performed at all during our exile… and even those Mitzvos which we still do are imperfect, and much toil is needed to do any Mitzvah properly. But the crown of Nishmah which is the aspect of prayer and longing can never be taken away from us in any way. No matter what, our will and desire to return to Hashem is very strong… and even the lowest of the low on the lowest spiritual level is aflame with passion for the Infinite.”