Understanding Free Will

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.”

Author: Ephraim Portnoy

Ephraim Portnoy studied in both Beth Medrash Gevoha and the Breslov Kollel of Lakewood. He currently resides in Brachfeld, Israel.

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  1. Simply amazing… So we can’t always know whether it was our choice or not to do or sin? And the first statement of the Rebbe regarding freedom of choice is only in regards to the aspect that people believe they can never change?

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    • 1) The Rebbe in LKM I 21 teaches that we can never fully understand the relationship between Divine Providence and Free Will. But Reb Nosson does fill us in on what’s relevant for our own personal Avodas Hashem.
      When we are looking at the present and the future, we are supposed to focus on the fact that we do have free will to choose the right thing. But after we have tripped up, we should focus on the fact that Hashem runs the world, and that everything is going according to plan and will ultimately be for the good.
      2) It would seem that in a certain sense our freedom to choose is a “general” choice, as you say.
      Throughout the day, before a nisayon comes our way, our way of choosing good is by davening for success and strengthening our will and resolve. Hopefully, Hashem will then help us and our nisayon will be easier for us.
      But once the Nisayon comes along, the Rebbe says in Sichos HaRan that no matter what, we always have a point that we can overcome the Yetzer Hara, no matter how difficult.

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      • 1. You quote: “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?… ” This seems to imply that in as much as the Rebbe said a person can simply choose but that choice might take a long time to go from his desire to change to the actually change seen in his actions, would you agree? Secondly, what would you say about Rabbi Dessler’s famous explanation of the Nekuda of Bechira or point in the test where you have choice rather then saying that a person has a complete choice right now to make a.k.a. cold turkey. If we say the Rebbe is talking about the overall change a person can make over time based on his desire to improve and tefilah, these two ideas would work together.

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        • This seems to imply that in as much as the Rebbe said a person can simply choose but that choice might take a long time to go from his desire to change to the actually change seen in his actions, would you agree?
          Yes, of course.
          What would you say about Rabbi Dessler’s famous explanation of the Nekuda of Bechira?
          It would seem that they could work together. But unlike Rabbi Dessler who says that at any given moment we only have bechirah on a specific level, the Rebbe seems to be implying that there is always a point within us that we can force ourselves to choose correctly no matter how difficult.

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  2. this is an important and valuable discussion. what it doesn’t seem to address is what happens when a person begs and cries and still there is no ‘answer’ or relief?
    it is easy to say keep trying even if there are 1000s of obstacles. but the reality of life is far from that simple.
    one could perhaps say “Hashem i put it all in Your hands, help me”. that is good. but what if the person still does not experience any help or chizuk etc?
    please don’t criticize the person and say they are not trying hard enough. this won’t help.

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    • When a person is begging for help and doesn’t see that anything is changing:
      You are right that it’s very difficult to keep on trying. Even if a person is trying his best it can still take a very long time until we begin to see anything.
      But that’s why we have all of the Rebbe’s hischazkus- which is in essence a fresh way of looking at our “waiting time”, as the Rebbe calls it in LKM I 6. When we have the proper outlook of what’s going on and why we have to wait so long, then instead of being tired out from it, we realize what a wonderful things we are accomplishing by the wait itself. See Meshivas Nefesh (Restore my Soul).
      What the Rebbe is addressing over here is that we should never fall into the trap of thinking that maybe there’s no point in trying since maybe I don’t have free will regarding this matter. I always have free will, even if it’s only a will to beg and pray.

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  3. the problem here is that the discussion seems overly theoretical. has any of the writers been through this, in real life?

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    • Of course we have.
      Who doesn’t have areas in his life where he feels he’s reached a dead end?
      Who is that mythical person who just glides along in his Avodas Hashem, easily making the right decision every time?
      Everything the Rebbe teaches can only be properly understood in the context of having lived through it.

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  4. We have been yearning for the rebuilding of our Holy Temple for thousands of years, is it rebuilt? No. It is possible for someone to yearn even though they fall, yes! We all have our areas where we continue to mess up and still hope for the best. Of course there are ups and downs but we must strive to start again over and over again and every little bit that we even hope for a better future counts up in heaven – as long as we never give up. Thats the point, maybe the outcome is not in your hands but the desire to improve can never be taken away from us.

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  5. Can I quote you in an article I’m writing for Mishpacha? Please let me know.

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