In the past few articles we have spoken about some of the questions surrounding Free Will. Getting a bit deeper into the concept, we see that everyone has Free Will according to his or her own particular potential. This means that when I get upstairs, God is not going to say to me, “Wow, you did great because you could have been Hitler but, instead, you were Eliyahu Yaakov” because I never had the potential to be Hitler.
On the flip side, when I get upstairs, God is not going to say to me, “Wow, you were terrible because you could have been Moses but, instead, you were merely Eliyahu Yaakov” because I never had the potential to be Moses.
However, when I get up there, what God will say to me is, “Were you the best Eliyahu Yaakov that you could be?”
It comes out that there are certain limitations on one’s Free Will capacity. That is, there are relative expectations for each individual based on the time, place, socio-economic background, religious upbringing, and a myriad other factors.
Capture the Flag & Life
A person’s Free Will capacity is comparable to a Capture the Flag field.
In Capture the Flag, there are two opposing teams. Each team has a flag and “owns” a section of the Capture the Flag field. Without going into all the details, the objective is to capture the opposing team’s flag and bring it back to your section of the field.
A Capture the Flag field is broken up into three sections: One of the exterior sections is “owned” by one of the two teams, the other exterior section is “owned” by the opposing team, and the section in the middle is no-man’s land.
Similarly, there are two opposing “sides” of a person – the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination.
In each of these “sides,” there are things that are “locked up” by the inclination that owns it, and the opposing inclination “knows” it can’t presently get you to do those things. For example, if you are an eighteen-year-old girl from Los Angeles, perhaps the Good Inclination has murder “locked up” – the Evil Inclination “knows” that it is presently incapable of getting you to kill in cold blood; and, at the same time, the Evil Inclination has slander “locked up” – the Good Inclination “knows” that it is presently incapable of stopping you from trashing your friend behind her back as soon as she turns around.
Between these two opposing sides lies a “no-man’s land” – a middle ground that can go either way. It is here that Free Will takes place.
Thus, we do not say that every decision a person makes is necessarily a product of one’s Free Will capacity. Like modern psychology, Judaism states that people’s actions can be rooted in Nature or Nurture – genetics or conditioning. However, unlike modern psychology, Judaism rejects the assertion that all of people’s actions are rooted in Nature or Nurture. Rather, every human being has at least a “point” of Free Will choice, i.e., a scenario in which he or she can go in either direction – either toward Good or toward Evil.
For example, a person who grows up in a bad neighborhood and is told at age fifteen that it’s time for him to make a living, and by “make a living” what is meant is to follow someone into an alley and rob him at gunpoint – it could be that his Free Will choice is not whether or not he goes through with the robbery. Instead, his Free Will choice may be whether he hits the guy over the head or gives him back some money for the subway after having robbed him.
We see from this that we can never judge anybody because, not only can’t we know what their Free Will choices are, we can’t even know what our Free Will choices are.
Therefore, we can (almost) never compare ourselves and our spiritual achievements with those of another, since we can’t know who is doing more with what they have been given. Therefore, as the saying goes, “It’s not about where you are on the ladder, but how many rungs you’ve climbed.”
Similarly, the Talmud teaches that even if a person is being brought out to be executed by a Jewish court because he is guilty of murder beyond a shadow of a doubt, you cannot go up to him and say, “I am more righteous in the eyes of God than you are” since you can’t know what his Free Will choices are and you can’t know what your Free Will choices are. (God set up a justice system stating what we are supposed to do with this murderer, and thus we act accordingly. But, in terms of closeness to God, you can’t know.)
So while we can never judge a person and say that he is an Evil person, we can judge an action and say that it is an Evil action. As we explained earlier in this chapter, given that life is all about building one’s relationship with God, “Good” is that which brings me closer to God, and “Evil” is that which pulls me away from God. Therefore, I can point to an action, independent of the individual perpetrating it and his relative situation, and declare that action to be objectively an Evil action. At the same time, however, I cannot classify the one doing the Evil action as Evil himself. (Disclaimer: It seems to me that Judaism would say that there are exceptions to this rule in extreme cases, such as Pharaoh, Hitler, and the like.)
Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov is a sought after cutting edge international speaker on Kabbalah, relationships, parenting, and life. His recently released #1 Amazon’s Best Seller, Jewish By Choice: A Kabbalistic Take on Life & Judaism, has won wide acclaim as one of the clearest, most comprehensive, and reader-friendly depictions of Kabbalah and the “whys” of Judaism.