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  Chapter 33 from
Twerski On Spirituality

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski 


Other Available Chapters
15  19 


To Be Truly Free

Earlier we noted that humans have the capacity to delay gratification, whereas animals lack this trait. As we have noted, a person may have a strong desire to do something which is completely appropriate -- say, take a luxury cruise -- and may have the money to do so, but because he has a number of obligations or for other reasons, he decides to postpone his excursion until a more propitious time, which may be weeks or months away. The capacity to postpone is uniquely human, because an animal does whatever it desires when the desire occurs.

In general, animals are not free to make decisions, because they are at the mercy of their bodily impulses. If an animal is hungry, it is driven to look for food and must do so. An animal cannot decide not to eat when it is hungry. It is inconceivable that an animal will decide, “I am going to fast today.” This is equally true of all other physical impulses which totally dominate an animal’s behavior. Man is alone in being able to resist a bodily urge, and deny himself gratification of a strong desire if he considers it to be inappropriate.

Some philosophers deny that man has freedom of choice, and contend that a person has a number of impulses and ideas, some of which are in conflict, and that his behavior is determined by whichever impulse or idea happens to be the strongest. They say that because man is aware of the struggle within himself he has an illusion that he is making a choice, whereas the choice is really being made for him. Judaism categorically rejects this concept which, by denying free will, essentially reduces man to an animal level, with the only distinguishing feature being that man is conscious of the struggle between the opposing forces within him. Freedom of choice is a fundamental axiom of Judaism. In fact, Judaism teaches that although G–d is in control of everything in the universe, He has divested himself of control over man’s decisions, and does not intervene in man’s moral or ethical choices.

The idea that the strongest impulse determines behavior is indeed true of animals. For example, as we previously noted, an animal is driven by hunger to look for food, and cannot resist doing so. Suppose, however, that a hungry jackal that is foraging for food spies a carcass, and has an intense desire to satisfy its hunger by eating it. Unfortunately for the jackal, a huge, ferocious tiger happens to be feasting on the carcass. The hungry jackal will not go anywhere near the carcass, not because it respects the property rights of the tiger, but because it does not want to get killed, which would surely happen if it tried to invade the tiger’s territory. The drive to satisfy its hunger is opposed and overcome by the drive for survival, and so the jackal forgoes eating in order to escape the punishment of being killed by the tiger. In other words, animals will resist an impulse if gratifying it is fraught with the possibility of retribution.

Let us suppose that a person who is extremely money hungry is employed in a firm which turns over many millions of dollars each day. Being very savvy on computers, he has figured out a way to divert money from various accounts to his own, and could become very wealthy in a short period of time. His insatiable greed makes him consider this dishonest behavior. He realizes, however, that the auditors will undoubtedly have on their team a person who is equally computer-savvy, and there is a possibility that these transactions could be traced to him. If that were to occur, his ill-begotten money would be confiscated, he would be hit with a hefty fine of $50,000 or more, and would be sentenced to a long prison term for computer crime. Because the possible consequences of gratifying his greed are too formidable, he does not risk doing so, and abstains from committing the crime. In this case the philosophers are correct. The greedy impulse conflicted with the fear of retribution, and since the latter was the stronger of the two, he desisted from the act. His decision not to steal was not a moral decision, but was very much like the jackal’s decision to forego trying to satisfy its hunger because of the fear of being killled by the tiger. This decision was therefore not a uniquely human decision.

When does a person become uniquely human? When he resists a bodily impulse in the absence of the possibility of any form of retribution, solely because he considers it to be morally wrong. This is something which no animal can accomplish.

Suppose a man from a town in northern Maine attends a business convention in Hawaii. There is not a single soul there who knows him. He is seized by a temptation to do something immoral, and he knows that there is no possibility that he will be discovered. Furthermore, given the current libertarian attitudes in society, even the exposure of an immoral act may have little consequence. However, he resists yielding to temptation because he believes such behavior to be morally wrong. He denies a strong physical impulse in absence of any threat of punishment, solely on a moral-ethical basis. This is where man rises above the animal level. No animal can make a moral-ethical decision. Man is thus the only living creature that has true freedom of choice, and the capacity to be truly free is therefore uniquely human, and is a cornerstone of spirituality.

In my work treating addicts, I point out to them that addiction is the most absolute type of slavery the world has ever known. A person who has become addicted to drugs is likely to do things he had never thought possible, but when he is in the grip of addiction, the drug is a ruthless, totalitarian dictator, and he will do whatever is necessary to obtain his drug. The addict completely loses the unique human distinction of being free.

Addiction to drugs is not the only way a person may lose his freedom. We are often dominated by other drives, which we may not recognize as tyrannical. Yet, when we are under their dominance, we have lost our precious freedom of choice, much the same as the drug addict.

There are people who are true workaholics, and cannot tear themselves away from the office, even though they know they should be with the family. There are people who are so ego driven to achieve recognition or acclaim that they will do anything to get it. There are people who have an insatiable desire to have more money, and cannot restrain themselves from trying to further increase their already enormous wealth, even though they could not possibly consume what they have in a thousand lifetimes. And of course, there are people who very much want to live and be healthy, but cannot resist the impulse to smoke cigarettes, even though they are fully aware of the toxic and even lethal effects of smoking. There are people who, try as they might, succumb to the urge to eat far more than is healthy. In all these situations, something has wrested the freedom of choice from the person. Whenever this happens, the person has become a slave to his particular habit.

In the Haggadah From Bondage to Freedom (Mesorah Publications, 1995), I pointed out that the emphasis given to the Exodus from Egypt indicates that Passover is not merely an “independence day” celebration which lasts a full week. In addition to a full week of total abstinence from chametz, which follows several weeks of meticulous housecleaning and virtual sterilization of the kitchen, we also declare that each Shabbos and all the festivals commemorate the Exodus. The Torah associates many mitzvos with the Exodus: tefillin, tzitzis, kashrus, redemption of the firstborn, forbidden relationships, to name just a few. In fact, the basis of our very belief in G–d is related to the Exodus, as is evident in the first commandment: “I am the Lord, your G–d, Who has delivered you from the land of Egypt.”

The repeated reference to the Exodus is to remind us that we are not to be enslaved, neither by a despot such as Pharaoh nor by any habit which becomes despotic and deprives us of our free will. If we feel we cannot throw off the shackles of a habit, we are reminded that G–d delivered us from the enslavement of Egypt, and that if we make a sincere attempt at overcoming our tyrannical habit and turn our lives and will over to G–d as is stated in Ethics of the Fathers (2:4), He will deliver us from our despotic habit as well. Just as in the Exodus the deliverance did not occur until the enslavement surpassed our tolerance and we cried out to G–d (Exodus 2:23), so with any habit that has taken over control of our lives and has enslaved us, we must feel this enslavement as intolerable, because only then will we make a sincere effort to break loose from its grip and invoke G–d’s help in becoming free.

Western civilization extols freedom as an inalienable human right. Unfortunately, this love of liberty is too often restricted to political freedom, but in our daily lives we may be oblivious to the fact that we have surrendered our freedom to various drives, and are not masters over our behavior any more than are brute beasts.

Nothing is more central to Jewish spirituality than free will. In his last words to us, Moses said, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you should choose life ... to love G–d and to hearken to His words” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Moses was not referring to physical life, because we see many people who are physically alive although they do not observe the word of G–d. Moses was referring to spiritual life, to live at a human level rather than at an animal level, which constitutes the death of the human spirit. Spiritual life is choice, and we have freedom of choice only when we break loose from the tyranny of our physical, animalistic drives. The Talmud says, “Freedom is inscribed on the Tablets (of the Ten Commandments)” (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2).

As we have noted, animals are dominated by their bodily drives and do not have free choice. Angels, while totally spiritual, are agents of G–d to carry out assigned missions, and they do not have a choice to obey or disobey. Of all creations, man is the only one that has choice, and in this way man is likened to G–d, because only G–d and man are free to act. Rabbi Dessler says that this is precisely what is meant by man being created in the “image of G–d”; i.e., that man is like G–d in not being compelled in his actions. How careful we must be in using the faculty that we alone share with G–d!

 
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