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Chapter Eight: Getting to the Core of It All

Chapter Eight: Getting to the Core of It All

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Sources:
Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. IV, p. 1309;
Vol. VI, p. 113; Vol. V, p. 57ff; Vol. XI, p. 5;
Vol. XIX, pp. 280-281ff.;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Shemini, 5746

Once the Baal Shem Tov passed through a small village in Poland. To his dismay, he discovered there was no mikveh in the vicinity. Anxious to solve that problem, he promised to grant any blessing to a person who would construct such a structure.

A middle-aged villager came forth. He was willing to undertake the project. He would pay the costs and bring a Rabbi to supervise the mikveh’s construction. But on one condition: he was childless, and asked the Baal Shem Tov for a blessing for a posterity.

The Baal Shem Tov happily agreed and soon afterwards, the mikveh was built. The heavenly court was in uproar. On one hand, the Baal Shem Tov’s blessing would have to be fulfilled. After all, what a tzaddik decrees, the Holy One, blessed be He, must carry out.1 On the other hand, the man was destined to be childless; that was to have been his personal fate. And the Baal Shem Tov could have seen that with his spiritual insight. How could he have given a blessing that went against the natural order!

Ultimately, the heavenly court decided that the Baal Shem Tov’s blessing would be fulfilled. For overstepping the bounds of nature, however, the Baal Shem Tov would be punished and would lose his share in the World to Come.

When the Baal Shem Tov learned of this, he was overjoyed. “Until now,” he explained, “there was a possibility that I could have been serving G‑d for the sake of a reward. After all, I knew that I would receive a portion in the World to Come. Now that I know that will be withheld from me, I have no ulterior motive whatsoever. I can serve Him truly for His sake alone.”

Man’s Uniqueness

The Rambam writes: 2

Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to tend toward a good path and become righteous, the option is his. And if one desires to tend to a bad path and become wicked, the option is his. This is the intent of the Torah’s statement:3 “Behold man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil,” i.e., the human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that man can, on his own initiative… know good and evil and do anything that he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad….

This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests] the Torah and its mitzvos , as it is written:4 “Behold I have set before you today [life and good, death and evil].”…

G‑d does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Instead, everything is left to their [free choice].

Were G‑d to decree that an individual would be righteous or wicked… what place would there be for the entire Torah? According to which judgment or scales of justice would retribution be administered to the wicked and rewards to the righteous?

The Rambam emphasizes that man is unique in that he in contrast to other animals can choose how to conduct himself. Not that an animal is bad; it just acts instinctively. It has a certain nature and makeup and acts accordingly. Theoretically, were we to have a master computer that we could program to know an animal’s specific makeup and know everything that would happen to it in the future, the computer would be able to predict exactly what the animal would do. For an animal is not capable of making independent decisions. It responds to stimuli according to a defined, predictable pattern.

Man is created differently. He is not confined to a fixed behavioral pattern, but instead, has the ability to choose and make decisions intellectually. Instead of being controlled by his instincts, desires, and whims, he can control them, exercising them at will. He can refine and even transform his pattern of feeling, altering his natural tendencies. Moreover, not only can he command and change the way he reacts emotionally, he can even manifest mastery over his power of thought, training his intellect to work differently from its inherent tendency.5

Choice That Transcends Logic

The true power of choice, however, transcends intellectual understanding and rational decision-making. The term “choice” implies that the person is not compelled in any way; there is nothing forcing him to choose one path or another. For if there is reason or logic compelling him, he is not choosing. Indeed, he has no alternative but to follow his logic.

The nature of intellect is to evaluate a situation, seeing it as it is. And when a person understands what type of conduct is called for in a particular situation, it cannot truly be said that he chose how to conduct himself. On the contrary, he is compelled to act according to his understanding. Indeed, his own comprehension of what is right is a far greater source of compulsion than physical pain inflicted on him by others.6

To illustrate using an obvious example: A person is plagued by hunger. In one room, there is a table laid out with fine delicacies. In another, there is a raging furnace. Could it be said that he chose to sit down at the table rather than throw himself into the fire? Obviously not; the decision is blatantly obvious. To do otherwise would simply not make sense.7 Similarly, with regard to many aspects of our conduct, since we do what makes sense, what we understand is right, we cannot be said to have chosen how to act.

This concept applies even with regard to feelings that transcend the intellect, tendencies that draw us in a particular direction when we have no logical explanation: for example, the love parents feel for children. Since we are drawn in this direction naturally, without making any effort, it cannot be said that we choose to act in this way. On the contrary, it is not our choice at all; these feelings are simply facts of our being.8

Reasons for Motivation

Choice means acting when there is nothing pulling us toward the article or repelling us from it, and our actions are solely dependent on our own initiative. When does such a concept apply? Primarily in our Divine service. When it comes to ordinary matters, our decisions are either made on the basis of our instincts, our feelings, or our rational decisions. As above, since these motivators are involved, we cannot say that we have chosen our course of action; there is an external or internal factor triggering our decisions. It is with regard to spiritual matters, by contrast, the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvos, where man has choice. He may decide to carry out G‑d’s will or refrain from doing so, heaven forbid.

Investing an Element of Transcendence

How can G‑d let this be so? Shouldn’t the world be as He decrees? And how can it be otherwise? After all, He is G‑d, the absolute Creator, who brought the world into being from absolute nothingness. How can man have the potential to ignore His will? That would appear to imply that something else aside from Him exists in the world.

In truth, there is no rational explanation for this concept. Logic would appear to dictate that since the world has no independent existence and is brought into being by G‑d, everything in the world should conform to His will.

But G‑d is G‑d. He doesn’t have to confine Himself to what we understand as logical. It is true, He made a major portion of the world logical, conforming to an order and a pattern that man can understand. But in order to emphasize that it is His world, He made one element of the world man like He is: above logic, able to choose and do whatever he desires.

G‑d has the power of choice; indeed, this quality reflects the essence of His being. And He invested this quality in the creation by endowing it to man, allowing man to manifest G‑d’s essence within the world through his choice.9

The Source for Choice

To explain these concepts, let’s look at the process of decision-making again. When we react emotionally, only a certain dimension of our beings is touched. A distinction can be made between our selves our fundamental “I” and the feelings evoked. Only a certain dimension of our selves, that point to which feelings relate, will be involved in the decision. Intellectual decisions touch deeper, but even then, there is a distinction between “I” and my thoughts, what I understand and who I am. Our involvement in the decision will be no more engaging than the thought that mandates it.

Now when a person chooses to act even though he is not motivated emotionally or intellectually, what will his motivation be? It’s obvious; if there is no motivation from the outside, the motivation will be coming from the inside, from the depths of the person’s being. Who he really is and what he really wants will be expressed.10

That is the meaning of G‑d’s choosing the Jewish people. He invests His inner self a quality deeper than emotion, intellect, or will in them. The choice is not between one entity and another. For in a true sense, since choice involves the expression of His inner being, it is absolute and can only be one.

The choice is whether He expresses Himself and thus brings into being the Jewish people or whether He does not express Himself. In such an instance, another entity, identical in the human physical form and even sharing comparable qualities of intellect and emotion, is brought into being, but that entity is not part of G‑d’s chosen nation. In him, G‑d has not invested His inner being.

Why History Unfolds

Although G‑d’s choice of the Jewish people became manifest at the time of the Giving of the Torah,11 this does not mean that He weighed the positive qualities of the Jews and the gentile nations and selected the Jewish people. Instead, G‑d is above the limits of time. From His point of view, at the very beginning of creation, before He brought any existence into being, He chose the Jewish people, empowering them with His essential being. Although chronologically, it took several millennia for that choice to become manifest, His choice defines what a Jew really is. Our nation’s entire spiritual history can be seen as an expression and a result of that choice.

This concept also explains why “None will ultimately be estranged from Him”;12 every Jew will at the culmination of his cycle of reincarnation choose to affirm G‑dliness. The essence of a Jew is one with G‑d. Thus it is impossible that he or she will choose anything but Him.13 Either through a full-hearted commitment to Divine service or through an inner awakening following the pattern of sin and teshuvah, he or she will on his own initiative bring the essential G‑dliness in his soul into expression.

The Soul’s Journey

Just as in G‑d’s choice of the Jewish people, there was a time that the choice was not manifest;14 so, too, on the individual level, it may take years and perhaps lifetimes before that choice will be expressed. Ultimately, however, every Jew is a Jew, and “No Jew can and no Jew desires to remain separate from G‑dliness.”15

In that sense, each person’s life (or lives) is a positively oriented progression. In a manner that can be conceived only by His sublime wisdom, G‑d is leading each person on a journey of self-expression. As we proceed through life, each of us is given the chance to discover and express who he really is,16 and the fundamental connection to G‑d he shares.17

At times, this journey passes through shadows and is fraught with challenges. And there are occasions when we fail and slump into sin. Even then, we must realize that these phases of the journey were also ordained by G‑d. Certainly, a person must sincerely regret his sins. But he should not despair and think that all hope is lost for him. On the contrary, he “can on his own initiative… do anything that he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good.”18 Although he has sinned, through teshuvah, he can reveal the essential G‑dliness of his soul. This is the purpose of that descent: to enable him to reveal his essential G‑dly core and choose good.

Indeed, the revelation of one’s essence through the process of sin and teshuvah possesses an advantage over a person’s ordinary Divine service. When a person feels close to G‑d, performing a mitzvah comes naturally. It does not require that the person tap his spiritual core. When, by contrast, a person has sinned and strayed from his connection to G‑d, there is no natural way for him to come close. On the contrary, his sins separate between him and G‑d.19 It is only because his essence is G‑dly and there is no entity that can prevent that essence from being expressed, that an individual can bring about a personal metamorphosis and turn to G‑d in teshuvah.20

Similar concepts apply on the cosmic sphere. Our national history has been structured in a manner that enables the Jewish people as a whole to turn to G‑d in teshuvah on their own initiative, as a result of their choice.21 This the expression of the G‑dly core within the Jewish people will in turn lead to the expression of G‑dliness in the world at large. As the Rambam writes:22 “The Torah has promised that ultimately, Israel will repent towards the end of her exile and immediately she will be redeemed.”

Footnotes
1.
See Shabbos 59b; Taanis 23a, and Zohar, Vol. II, p. 15a.
2.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 5:1-4.
3.
Bereishis 3:22.
4.
Devarim 30:15.
5.
See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 113. As will be explained and as annotated in that source, the true power of choice has its source in the essence of the soul, a potential that surpasses intellect. Nevertheless, this higher potential enclothes itself in the intellect and enables us to make choices based on our intellectual decisions.
6.
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1309.
7.
Igros Kodesh, Vol. III, p. 41.
8.
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 5.
9.
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Shemini, 5746.
10.
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 5.
11.
Shulchan Aruch HaRav 64:4; see Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 4.
12.
II Shmuel 14:14, as interpreted by Tanya, ch. 39; Shulchan Aruch HaRav , Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:3.
13.
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIX, pp. 280-281.
14.
This also reflects the concept of choice. The fact that, for a time, the Jewish people existed without the manifestation of G‑d’s choice of them demonstrates that it is not inherited family qualities, but His initiative, that makes us unique.
15.
HaYom Yom, entries 21 Sivan; 25 Tammuz.
16.
This concept is reflected by the term, Lech Lecha, the name of the Torah reading that recounts the personal journey of Avraham, the first Jew. Lech Lecha can be interpreted as meaning “Go to yourself,” i.e., “to your essence” (the commentary of R. Moshe Alshich to that Torah reading, as cited in the maamarim entitled Lech Lecha, 5702 and 5705).
17.
See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, p. 57ff.
18.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, loc. cit.
19.
Cf. Yeshayahu 59:2.
20.
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXX, p. 203.
21.
And not as a result of persecution by the gentile nations. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 214ff.
22.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5.
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Gregory Gardner howick, south africa June 28, 2012

Thank you this was very informative and helpful. It is very true that one of our unique qualities, seting us apart from the animals. Is choice. I believe also that G-d does in love guide us in paths of righteousness.. We show our love for G-d, by choosing to obey. Reply

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