Character Development

Free Will and The Unreal Self: The Problem of Ego

If the distortion of perception that is caused by the choice to see reality in man’s image instead of God’s is the problem, the solution must be the sacrifice of ego. To reconnect with reality, the false version of man must dissolve. The will must give itself up.

The correct application of free will is to use it to annul itself. In Adam’s original test, he was not asked to do something; he was asked not to do. The real test of will is in its control; the ordeal is to give it back to God.

The Talmud (B. Batra 57b) describes the case of a man who travels a road that will take him by women who are washing laundry in a river; they may not be modestly covered and he may be tempted to look at them. The man averts his gaze and passes by. The Talmud states that if there was an alternative path with no temptation that he could have chosen, he is considered to have failed despite the fact that he did not look at the inappropriate sight. He may have passed the test at the point of temptation, but he failed the test of the choice of paths. He should not have been on that road in the first place. Entering unnecessary temptation is a fundamental error.

A classic mussar insight is that battles of temptation that are voluntarily chosen cannot be won: either one succumbs to the temptation (gazes at the illicit sight, for example) and falls into taavah (lust), or one succeeds (looks modestly away) and inevitably falls into gaavah (pride): “I managed!” The only solution is to decline the test. This is the central function of humility, the key to all character development.

The highest use of free will is to preserve it pure and untainted. The correct assertion of will is in the avoidance of ordeals, and that choice is far greater than all the unbidden heroics of entering free will ordeals even if all those battles are won. That humility allows man to manifest as an aspect of God; to give back his separateness and paradoxically achieve reality in that sacrifice.

That is why we ask daily not to be tested. It is true that the purpose of life is to withstand ordeals and that reward is due for succeeding in that, but the righteous prefer to say, in effect: “Withhold Your tests and their reward; just do not let me do any damage in your world.”

Sublimating the Will

Annulling the will does not mean coming to have no motivation; it means wanting very powerfully, but wanting what God wants. “Make His will your will…” (Avot 2:4). The goal is an aligning of man’s will with God’s. A valuable servant is not one who functions passively, blandly going about his master’s business with no personal interest in what he is doing; a servant worth having is one who burns with passionate motivation – but a motivation to perform his master’s will exactly as if it were his own. As Abraham bound Isaac he was not acting unwillingly, but with a will completely aligned with God’s command. Ralbag shows that Abraham was in a state of joy at that moment, not distress: the proof is that when he was told to withhold his hand from slaughtering his son that message was delivered by an angel; that was a prophetic communication, and a prophet must be in a state of joy to receive prophecy. Abraham must have been in a state of unalloyed joy; had he been distressed he could not have heard it.

Shadow and Image

The image of God that is man’s free will is the tzelem. “Tzelem” is based on “tzel,” a shadow. A shadow has a dual nature – it projects, but it does so by obstructing. If the object casting the shadow were completely transparent there would be no shadow. Man projects himself into reality by hiding his Source; his challenge is to become completely transparent, to allow God to shine into the world. To project a shadow you must obstruct the light; to project the light you must disappear. Man casts a shadow as long as his ego.

We see reality through a lens. Only the highest of prophets sees through a clear lens (Rambam on Mishna, Kelim 30:2); below that level all lenses are cloudy. Rabbi Dessler points out that the more cloudy a lens, the more it reflects the viewer. One who sees through a clear lens sees reality; one who sees through a cloudy lens sees himself. But the same opaque ego leads that viewer to think he sees reality when in fact all he sees of the world is his own image projected onto it everywhere. Dissolving ego is a polishing of the lens; when it is clear the self disappears and reality manifests. When man becomes transparent, God appears.

It is no accident that the greatest figure of history was the humblest (Bamidbar 12:3). Moses emptied himself of all ego and the result was that he became filled with Reality. He opened his mouth with no agenda but God’s, and God spoke from it.

Adam’s Ordeal – Then and Now

In every assertion of the self in contradiction to the Divine there is a potent experience of existence. There is good reason for this: since man’s very independence has its root in the Divine, in every act of disobedience man experiences a heady sense of himself as Divine. Obedience requires a negation of self; in obedience a deep level of the self must be slain.

Adam’s ordeal was the original challenge of ego, the desire for a separate existence. Obedience to a command was required: discipline your will, align it perfectly with Mine. But Adam chose to amplify the scope of his free will. For that he would have to step back into the world of fantasy, exchange reality for illusion – and then hope to be able to climb back to clarity. He chose to give existence to illusion and gambled that he would be able to slay it; no less an agenda than attempting his own resurrection. In the long run that is what will be experienced, but only at the cost of the pain of mankind’s long walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Binding the Will: Obligation and Spontaneity

The negation of independent ego in the choice to align the will with its Source finds expression in this statement of the Sages (Kiddushin 31a): “Greater is one who is commanded and does, than one who is not commanded and does.” Commanded action is greater than spontaneous action.

This is not intuitive – why is submission to a command greater than a full, spontaneous expression of the self?

A commanded act is greater than a spontaneous act because to act out another’s will requires overcoming the natural resistance to a command. The ego objects to being commanded; it seeks total independence. It far prefers giving orders to taking them.

But there is a deeper aspect to this principle. The word “mitzva” means more than simply “commandment:” it connotes togetherness or bond as well (tzavta means an alliance or bond). A mitzva binds the one who commands and the one who obeys into one system of will and action: the commander expresses a will and the commanded brings that will into action; they bond into a seamless process that brings intention into action.

Now a spontaneous action can be no greater than the individual who acts. At best it expresses all of the one who performs it. But a commanded action begins with its source in the one who commands; and when the commander is the Absolute, the one who obeys forges a chain that begins at the level of the Absolute and ends with his action. A spontaneous action is no more than what it is, but a commanded action expresses an Absolute source in a finite world.


From the Book Will, Freedom and Destiny: Free Will in Judaism by Rabbi  Akiva Tatz, Targum Press 2014


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