Why Are We Here? Free Will and the Purpose of Life

Why Are We Here? Free Will and the Purpose of Life

As the holiday of Rosh Hashanah approaches, we reflect upon our accomplishments over the past year and renew our commitments to personal growth in the one to come. Through our spiritual accounting on Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, says Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, our neshama (soul) can jump levels in its relationship with Hashem to a higher spiritual plane. There is a Jewish custom to take upon oneself a stringency in our observance during this time. (In my case, I attempt to learn more Torah at this time to set the tone for the rest of the year).

These first moments of the new year contain the code for everything in the universe, like the bundle of genes in an embryo. The closer we move to the beginning of the source of the Torah, the more compressed the message encoding the essence of the idea is unfolded. 

Free will, situated at the very center of the human being, is mentioned in the Torah during the very first moments of human consciousness. What is the source of free will? In Rabbinic literature, R’ Nahman bar Shmuel draws our attention to the verbal repetition of God throughout the six days of creation with the phrase, “Behold it was good,” which refers to our inclination towards goodness, called the yetzer tov. But at the end, in 1:31, the text says, “And behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) – and this word “very” (in Hebrew, me’od) is interpreted by the rabbis as referring to the yetzer hara, our evil inclination. This leads the Rabbis to ask, “Is the yetzer hara indeed very good? How can that be the case?” Well, they argue, “were it not for the yetzer hara, a person would not build a home, or get married, or have children, or engage in business” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, 9:7; Yoma 69b). Consequently, it is not the absence, but the mastery, of the yetzer hara that allows for the desire for true progress in the world.

This awareness of the yetzer hara is put to the test in another major text of free will in the Torah, named Moses’ declaration: “Behold! I have placed before you life and death. Choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19). What does it mean to “choose life”? It may be recalling a scene from the story of Creation. There, God sees Adam and urges him to make a choice: “Behold, he has become like the Unique One among us knowing good and bad: and now, lest he put forth his hand and take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Maimonides (Rambam) says that humanity is unique, in that there are no other creatures that are 1) able to determine right versus wrong through the use of their own thought processes without any outside guidance; and 2) able to do as they wish without anyone being able to stop them. 

Seeing that this is so, there was a distinct possibility that Adam may have chosen to eat from the Tree of Life if he was left to his own devices in Paradise; therefore God banished him (Maimonides, AKA Rambam, Laws of Repentance, 5:1). The fruit of the Tree of Life was not originally forbidden to Adam, but he was created immortal, and Hashem did not want him to eat the fruit and thus reverse the edict of mortality. But why did Hashem banish Adam from the Garden of Eden, instead of restraining him or taking away his temptation? Because even Hashem doesn’t normally interfere with humanity’s free will, and instead guided Adam’s behavior by changing his surroundings and possible courses of action.

This lack of scolding or coercion between Adam and Hashem invites us to examine its implications for the rest of humanity. A deeper understanding comes from verses in Genesis: “And Hashem says: Let Us make (na’aseh) Humanity…” (Genesis 1:26). Who is “Us”? A fascinating idea from Chazal (the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash) is that Hashem was referring to a collaboration between Hashem and humanity. We are co-creators of ourselves, whereby Hashem creates the basic human potential and we humans complete the process through personal growth. 

In short, we are not human beings but human becomings. Self is only Self if I—as a human—create it. The Babylonian Talmud states, “All is in the Hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b; Megillah 25a). Simply put, all that befalls humanity is predestined except our free will to serve Hashem or not. Because we have free will to serve God, Hashem values and treasures our Awe of Heaven above all else; as the Prophet says, “Fear of Hashem is God’s treasure” (Isaiah 33:6). 

Rambam pointed to the interplay between predestination and free will in this verse, calling it a paradox. Through our moral decisions and free will, we create ourselves. Everyone is given the option of becoming as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu or as evil as Bila’am Ha’Rashah (the Wicked One) (Rambam, Mishneh Torah). Ultimately, the central purpose of Creation is that human beings should choose to have a true relationship with Hashem (Ramchal, Derech Hashem).

Many scientists and popular science writers are highly skeptical about the existence of free will, including writer Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and historian Yuval Harari. They claim that human actions are not the result of conscious choices, but rather are caused by physiological processes over which we have no control but are determined by the physical laws of nature.

However, this reductionist worldview, where everything is reducible to physical processes is not consistent with the way we interact with the world, according to some neurobiologists and behavioral scientists (the International Conference on the Neuroscience of Free Will). Rather, humans interact with one another and the world in a manner that implies our own intentional agency, where we have a capacity for making our own choices and responding intelligently to environmental stimuli. Agency, intentionality, and choice are essential principles in our goal of understanding human behavior. Imagining ourselves as just physical machines leads us to become overwhelmed with our thinking of physical processes and miss the intentional, goal-directed nature of our actions. “Science speaks of causes but not purposes. It understands events caused by things in the past, but not acts and decisions motivated by a vision of the future” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Studies in Spirituality).

To summarize, with our proper attention, Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year where our spiritual and physical wishes are most likely to manifest in the world through a more personal connection with Hashem. May you apply your Godly free will and agency, the essence of what it means to be human, to elevate your experience of the High Holidays. Shana Tova!

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. David Keleti is a Clinical Proposal Writer in a Medicaid managed-care organization, and a member of Aish Chaim in Bala Cynwyd, PA. This piece was inspired by an event held there by Rabbi Akiva Tatz).


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