Free will is scary. Free will means there are consequences to my actions; that if something goes wrong as a result of my choices, I’m responsible.

The question is: Just how badly can I mess up? If G‑d created me withAm I the god of my own life? a purpose, can I completely blow it? Am I the god of my own life?

And since our choices have consequences, can humanity as a whole run G‑d’s plans totally off the track? Will G‑d let us nuke the planet, wreak havoc with its climate, or subsume human diversity under the power of some cyborg AI singularity Tower of Babel?

This may be the only truly important question surrounding free will. And since it’s a question that any simple, straightforward person is liable to ask, it deserves a simple, straightforward answer.

The Answer

So the answer is no. And yes.

Yes, you are responsible for your actions. No, you are not the god of your own life. Nothing and nobody, even the entire human race, can override G‑d’s plans.

You only need to read the first two of the Ten Commandments to know that. There is only one G‑d, andAttributing sovereign power to others, including yourself, is a form of polytheism. attributing sovereign power to others, including yourself, is nothing short of idolatry.

Indeed, Maimonides writes, that’s how polytheism began: There were very clever people who believed in a supreme G‑d. But they figured that G‑d had delegated the power to run His world among the stars and their orbits. They reasoned that if G‑d had allotted them such honor, it was only appropriate that they should as well.1

ּBut they were mistaken to believe that these supernal forces were endowed by their Creator with free will to determine how His powers should be distributed.2

This, then, is the core of polytheism and idolatry: to believe that anything has power through its free will to change G‑d’s plans for His world. And that certainly includes you and me. We are not demigods.

But yes, there are consequences to our actions. Which is why if we make a mess, we’re going to have to clean it up.

And we are capable of cleaning it up—because we haven’t messed up G‑d’s plans. Giving up on yourself, it turns out, is also another form of polytheism.

That’s the short answer. But the human mind demands at least a small measure of explanation. How is it possible that there are consequences with no change of plan? So here goes:

Playing Free Will in the G‑d Game

Very sorry, but we can’t do this question justice unless we answer a more basic question first:

Why on earth does G‑d design creatures that do things Why on earth does G‑d design creatures that do things He doesn’t like?He doesn’t like? If you were to design a world, would you do such a thing?

Yes, you might. In fact, I knew a budding game designer who had just that in mind. His name was Dave, and after receiving a masters degree in psychology, he came to study at Digipen School of Computer Gaming. I asked him what inspired him to make the switch from treating live human realities to creating virtual ones.

“I love gaming,” he explained, “but I’m so frustrated with the characters. They’re all so predictable. Once you’ve played a significant number of games, you can always figure out what these characters are going to do next. What I want to do is to create an algorithm that generates characters that are self-aware and can make their own choices.”

As far as I can understand, nobody has the slightest idea what such an algorithm would look like. I would even venture to say that we could prove it impossible. Everything in computer science is about binary pairs such as yes and no, if and then, cause and effect, and as explained in my last article on the subject, willfulness can only be described in non-binary, holistic terms.

But I played along.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s say you come up with the algorithm. What would your characters do?”

“They would do just what I would do,” he said. “They would hack my game.

I should have guessed.

“Dave, why on earth would you want characters that hack your game?”

“Because that way, I could identify with them. I would look there inside my game and say, ‘Wow, there I am!’”3

At that point I had a flash of insight into one of the deepest problems of the story of man.

G‑d says, “I just made you out of the earth. I just put you in a beautiful garden. Take good care of it. Oh, and see that tree over there? You can eat from all the trees, but don’t eat from that one.”

We eat from that tree.

G‑d says “Thou shalt have no other gods.” We worship other gods.

G‑d says “Honor your mother and father.” Some of us do, some don’t.

G‑d says, “Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t covet that which is not yours.” He has creatures who do all these things.

How is that possible? G‑d so wills it and a universe comes into being. The fabric of the universe is that desire. How could there be anything in that universe that runs contrary to His will?

Choosing to Will

It is possible because G‑d does not have to desire. And so, His desires do not define Him.

When a human being says, “Don’t A god who needs certain things and is annoyed by others is not a god worth worshipping. make noise after 11 p.m.!” that tells you something about him.

“Don’t add pepper to my rice.” “Don’t add salt to my soup.” More information.

We say these people have chosen their preferences, but they haven’t really. These choices are just expressions of what kind of people they are. They are people who like to sleep at night and have digestive issues and high blood pressure.

So we imagine that when G‑d says, “Don’t eat pork or lobster! Don’t drape slices of cheese over your burgers!” that’s because He finds those foods distasteful. It’s as though we could add up the sum total of all His commandments and figure, “He’s that kind of a G‑d, so of course that’s how He wants us to behave.”

And then we have a real problem: If He really dislikes these things, why did He put them here?

Which is missing the whole point. A god who needs certain things and is annoyed by others is not a god worth worshipping. To be G‑d is to need nothing—not this world, not any other world. G‑d chose to desire a world. He chose what sort of a world it would be. And He chose what would be good in this world and what would be bad.4

Beyond Will

Some people believe they can look at the universe, There’s something deeper to G‑d than His will and that is His capacity to choose.its laws and patterns, and from this know G‑d.

Others will tell you that’s not enough. Look at what He wants of His world—at the mitzvahs He commanded us, and with those you will know who He is.

Both are wrong.

True, by contemplating the marvels of the creation, we can come to deep awe and wonder of its Creator. Through contemplating the mitzvahs He asks us to follow, we know what He wants of His world, and the ways by which we may connect to Him.

But G‑d is not described by what He creates and neither is He described by what He creates it for. He could have chosen to desire something entirely different, in which case He would have created an entirely different creation.

That is the answer to our quandary: There’s something deeper to G‑d than His will. There is His capacity to choose. He chooses to will. He chooses to create.

And so, at the very core of His creation is not will or desire, but the freedom to choose.

And He began by choosing to desire that this universe would express this very deepest mystery of its Creator—that He is free to choose whatever He likes.

How is that expressed? By designing a human being, a creature that can choose however it wishes to choose. A creature that can even choose other than its Creator has chosen. Because G‑d can choose however He wishes to choose.

That is why G‑d does not stand in the way of a human being’s choice, as sordid and sinister as that choice may be. Because that is the plan: That His universe will express this freedom.

But neither can human choice stand in the way of G‑d’s plans. Because it is G‑d’s plan, after all, that enables our free choice.

Making the Right Choice

Hold on: WhenWhen a human being chooses the opposite of G‑d’s choice, does that express G‑d in His world? a human being chooses the opposite of G‑d’s choice, does that express G‑d in His world?

Of course not. You can’t be saying anything about G‑d by ignoring Him.

But when a human being struggles with choice, struggles with himself, struggles with an entire universe pulling him to just follow the most natural instincts and surrender to immediate gratification—and through his own struggle with his own self, he instead chooses to do the will of his Creator, he then becomes a true representative of G‑d within His universe.5

I would go further: When a human being struggles with his Creator’s will, and says, “I’m angry with You! I refuse to believe in You because of what I have seen!”—yes, then too, G‑d looks down and says, “Wow! There I am in My world!”

Consequences of Free Will

So, we can’t say that G‑d desires bad choices. When G‑d says, “I don’t want you to kill, steal, rape or commit adultery,” He really means it.

But He does want us to have free choice, and to express that free choice. And, inevitably, free choice can only be expressedThe most exquisite expressions of free choice are those that come out of making the wrong choice. when occasionally we make the wrong choice—that which goes against our Creator’s will, and against the purpose for which we were created.

Indeed, it seems that the most exquisite expressions of free choice are those that come out of making the wrong choice. Because it is only then that we have the choice to turn things around and make real change by learning to make the right choice.

That’s what Solomon the wise wrote, “All G‑d does is for His sake, even the wicked on the day of his evil.”6 R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes, “Because at some point, he will turn himself around and make the dark night of that wickedness into the light of day.”7

That wicked, evil day was wicked, evil and despicable to G‑d. But it has purpose. Because everything has purpose.

That tells us something. It tells us that life is set up with opportunities both to succeed and to fail—and then to fix up our failures.

And that tells us that bad choices and failures, as disastrous as their consequences may be, are not at all messing up G‑d’s plan. On the contrary, they are part of the plan, and they enhance that plan, making for a deeper, more powerful story. A story that tells about the limitless freedom of its Author.

The takeaway is that there is never room for despair. Because wherever you land, once all the dust is settled, you are in exactly the place where G‑d meant you to be: One step higher.

Amazingly, some of the deepest secrets of that set-up are told to us in stories that every Hebrew school attendee is taught. Understanding those stories as the rabbis of the Talmud did will explain much about everything I’ve just said.

As I hope to explain in the next installment in this series on free will.