Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler [i] teaches in “Michtav M'Eliyahu” that the free choice to behave according to the teachings of the Torah is not evenly distributed. Not everyone necessarily has free choice in the exact same areas. Rather, free choice is an individually tailored range, which can change moment to moment. What the Creator expects of the person depends on what the person's range is. [ii]
This is in line with what Rabbi Zusya of Anapoli [iii] remarked when caught by his colleagues weeping, "When I arrive before the heavenly court I won't worry about being asked why I wasn't on the level of our Teacher Moses or why I wasn't as great as the other saintly Biblical figures. What worries me is when they will ask, 'Zusya, were you Zusya?"
The lesson is that though each of us might not have the free choice to become somebody else's best; we each have the free choice to become our own best.
The idea of free choice being individually unique follows along with most of life’s patterns. Humans tend to vary from each other in most areas. Our faces appear different. Our sizes are different. Our intelligence varies. So why shouldn't our individual areas of free choice also vary?
To demonstrate how intensely different the individual ranges of free choice can be Rabbi Dessler contrasts two people’s very different levels of free choice. One person regularly attends Synagogue. He’s comfortably accustomed to the daily ritual recital of liturgy. However, he struggles with concentrating on the words. He’s constantly trying to reign in his wandering thoughts and bring them back into the text of the prayer book.This contrasts with another person who was brought up among thieves. Attending synagogue is so far removed from his life patterns that it’s not even within his range of free choice at all. As a result, it had no reason to occur to him at all. In fact, because of his harsh upbringing even the common sense practice of not to steal is also outside his range of free choice. Rabbi Dessler explains that his custom made spiritual challenge will arrive on the day when he’s caught by the authorities. Will he try to shoot his way out or will he refrain from murder – even if it possibly means self sacrifice? [iv]
According to Rabbi Dessler, each of these two people certainly have free choice, but in very different areas. Personally, I harbor some reservations about Rabbi Dessler's "thief" example because it claims that a human can lack free choice for even the most basic of humane behavior, such as not stealing. Still, Rabbi Dessler's sweeping overall message that areas of free choice can vary greatly among human beings resonates very deeply within me. This means that no matter what life situation a human being is in, s/he usually has a range of free choice in some areas of life. Why has the Creator designed humans in this way, couldn’t a human being live very nicely without free choice?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto [v] in one of his popular works “The Way of G-d” treats his reader to an intellectual Torah tour through precious value of free choice. He demonstrates logically the role free choice plays in our relationship with the Creator, Whose sole desire is to bestow kindness upon His creations. Since He’s perfect, everything about Him is perfect. This includes all His actions as well. They must also be perfect. Unlike humans, who are often wrapped with desires to receive, the Creator only yearns to give. Chief among His yearnings to give is to bestow kindness on humanity. Being true to Himself, He designed this bestowal of kindness to be perfect. Since He’s the only perfection in all of existence, for this bestowal of kindness to be perfect, He would have to give Himself – as He Himself the only perfect gift. Of course for a human to receive Him as a gift would be far more difficult than for a teaspoon to contain the entire Pacific Ocean. So “giving Himself” really means the next closest possibility, which is to be associated with Him, i.e. being close to Him to the fullest possible extent.
However, for a gift to be perfect it’s not enough that the gift is of the highest possible perfection; but, the receiver also needs to feel perfectly comfortable receiving the gift. Since the gift is truly of tremendous magnitude for a human to feel comfortable receiving this gift, s/he must earn it. Otherwise, receiving closeness to the Creator will feel like receiving a charitable handout – very debilitating. The pain of receiving what’s unearned is called in Kabbalah, “nahamah d’kihsufah” or the “bread of shame”.
I’ve demonstrated this dynamic in a few of my classes. I selected a student with a very outgoing personality. Then I’d ask, “I just gave you a million dollars, can I visit you today?”
“Yeah, of course teacher”, comes the inevitable response.
“Can I visit you again tomorrow?” I inquire.
“I guess … why not?” the response is slightly paused and weaker.
“How about also visiting you the next day?” I continue.
In one case the student angrily blurted out, “What do you want? Leave me alone!”
In other cases, the students were visibly uncomfortable at this point – squirming, shrugging and questioning the need for such a visit.
Then I explain to the class how when somebody receives an unearned gift, it’s very difficult to stand the presence of the benefactor for too long. Invariably, a debilitating sense of shame and unworthiness plays on the recipient’s mind and heart. This is why the Creator designed a means for us to earn the reward of experiencing His presence.
What scenario did the Creator design for us to earn a perfect bestowal of His kindness? Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains that He gave humans a Torah, teachings to guide our lives. He also provided humans with free choice whether or not to live according to His guidance. By exercising their free choice, humans can earn His kindness. [vi]
Typically the Torah is envisioned as a document mainly for Jews. However, truthfully the Torah provides plenty of spiritual guidance to the rest of humanity as well. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, here are a few basics. The Creator gave all humanity the seven Noahide mitzvahs (i.e. commandments). These seven mitzvahs are: monotheism, to speak respectfully about the Creator, not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery/incest, not to eat flesh removed from terrestrial creature while it was still living and to support a fair system of justice. Additionally, males who can be clearly identified as descendants of Abraham are required to get circumcised.[vii] Also, one who’s not Jewish can as a voluntarily practice any of the other Torah’s mitzvahs given to the Jews as an enhancement of his/her spiritual growth, with the notable exception of the Sabbath and phylacteries. Surprisingly, s/he can voluntarily do a certain mitzvah which is currently forbidden for Jews to do, bring an animal sacrifice on private alter. More comprehensive information and guidance about the Noahide mitzvahs are contained in the book “Path of the Righteous Gentile” by Chaim Clorfene and Yaakov Rogalsky. [viii]
Besides earning intimacy with the Creator, free choice also allows humans the dignity of engaging their Creator in a really dynamic relationship. Otherwise, the relationship would be sterile, stale and robotic. Imagine marrying your favorite programmed android … not much of a relationship. Nothing else in all of creation has a relationship with the Creator based on voluntary participation. The angels are too intelligent not to obey the Creator. They know the consequences all too well because His presence is very real to them. At the other extreme, animals are too ignorant to have free choice. Their behavior is largely stuck in a rut of instinct. Only humans straddle the delicate balance between knowledge and ignorance. Having a bit of each, this middle ground does not coerce one’s behavior in either direction and therefore, serves as a fertile garden of free choice. Allowing humans choices opens the door to a dynamic relationship with the Creator. As the relationship deepens, the person spiritually grows.
What is meant by spiritual growth? Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shpielman in his Kabbalistic masterpiece “Tal Orot” explains the Jewish view of spiritual growth as the process of a person “downloading” his/her own soul into his/her conscious mind, i.e. the easily accessible aspect of the mind.[ix] However, the flow of this is “soul download” does not stop with the mind, but, continues downward entering the body as well, becoming part of the person’s entire earthly self. The person will then approach life with greater spiritual awareness and sensitivity. Also, his/her earthly being will evolve into an expanded vessel to contain greater quantity and quality of the spiritual force known as “holiness” – pretty much the way a more advanced computer can handle larger and higher quality downloads than an outdated one can.
Of course, in the midst of spiritual growth a person is not encouraged to focus on this soul download at all. Rather, the person is encouraged to focus on being in a relationship with the Creator. If the relationship is healthy and growing, the download happens on its own – just like altered bodily chemistry when in love. Focusing on the soul download is like focusing one’s altered chemistry; obviously, not a very romantic pursuit. Hopefully, one doesn’t enter love for a chemical buzz.
In the body/soul relationship, the soul dresses in the mind/body the way the body dresses in a shoe. Only a little bit at the bottom edge of the body inserts itself into the shoe, shuffling it along. So too, only a little bit of the bottom edge of the soul inserts itself into the earthly self, to animate it. The overwhelming vastness of the soul remains beyond the earthly self’s grasp. [x]
Taking this metaphor a bit further, through spiritual development a person can build his/ her “shoe” higher, fashioning it into a “boot”. Just like a boot encloses a greater part of the body than a shoe, so too, a person can encompass more of his/her soul within the field of his/her earthly self. This is in line with the teaching from the Saba D’Mishpatim section of the Zohar describing the continuum of ever higher soul levels a person takes in “If he’s worthy …” [xi]
The aspect of the soul beyond the range of reach is referred to as “ohr makif”, meaning “surrounding light”. In an over simplistic way, this aspect of the soul can be depicted as surrounding the body like an aura. Of course, this is not entirely accurate since the soul is beyond our notions of space. Therefore, it’s technically inaccurate to assign locations to different aspects of the soul. Rather, “surrounding light” really means the aspect of the soul which cannot be grasped by the earthly self, but is still closely associated with it. Since it is not consciously experienced, it’s metaphorically described as surrounding the earthly self. [xii] This is similar to the common refrain, “That was over my head”, which essentially means, “I did not experience what was being communicated”.
The aspect of the soul grasped within the earthly self is referred to “ohr penimi”, meaning “indwelling light”. In an oversimplified manner this soul light can be pictured as filling the earthly self, the way water fills a cup. Since the soul exists beyond our notion of space, “indwelling light” really means the aspect of the soul that has become the person’s conscious mind and bodily life force. Over time this aspect can grow. The goal of Jewish spiritual growth over time is to deepen one’s relationship with the Creator. As the relationship deepens, “ohr makif” transforms into “ohr penimi” – “surrounding light” becomes “indwelling light”.
The “indwelling light” is quite complex, as each Torah command, mitzvah, draws into the person a different aspect of his/her soul. The soul is described being comprised of 613 different powers, corresponding to the 613 mitzvahs enumerated in the Torah scroll and to the 613 body parts, which according to some are 248 bones and 365 blood vessels. [xiii] Of course, being within the soul, all these 613 powers exist as a seamless whole, similar to the way separate rays of sunlight exist as a seamless whole within the sun, before radiating outward into space.[xiv] However, each of the 613 parts of the human body has a different soul power which inhabits it. For example, the soul’s eyes inhabit the body’s eyes imbuing them with the ability to see.[xv] Since in post Temple times, many of the 613 commandments are no longer available to us to perform, their absence doesn’t block our souls’ ability to download the lights associated with these mitzvahs. “The Creator does not withhold the possible (i.e. growth) for the sake of the impossible (that cannot be performed)”. [xvi]
This pattern of “surrounding light” and “ohr penimi” applies to every situation anywhere in creation where there’s a soul/body relationship. Kabbalah teaches that every detail of creation is alive in some way. This is because the Creator extends spiritual light to each and every creation in order to keep it in existence, kind of the way electricity flows through a light bulb to keep it lit. [xvii] This constant flow of spiritual light is that creation’s soul. Each and every creation has a soul appropriate to its own level. [xviii] Even a seemingly inanimate rock has a soul of sorts, rendering it alive in some sense. This pattern is a repeating constant across the entire spectrum of creation, from the lowly rock to the lofty angel.
However, unlike humans nothing else can grow voluntarily. Nothing else can convert “surrounding light” into “indwelling light” on its own. This is why in the Book of Zachariah, Joshua, the high priest, is described as walking among the angels who are merely standing by. [xix] Being a human, Joshua was able to voluntarily advance his own spiritual level. This is referred to here as “walking”. In contrast, angels cannot voluntarily advance spiritual levels, on their own. This situation is referred to as “standing”, being stationary. [xx] While the entire cosmos and all it contains (including the angels) can spiritually grow, their growth process is passive, whereas, humans actively engage the process.
The human ability to convert “surrounding light” into “indwelling light” through mitzvahs is the spiritual fruit of the “free choice” dynamic. A person’s real free choice involves engaging the mitzvahs whose spiritual lights straddle the border between his/her own “ohr makif” and “ohr penimi”. These mitzvahs might be in the form of thoughts, speech and/or deeds. An example of thought mitzvah might be developing a greater awareness of the Creator’s Oneness. An example of a speech mitzvah might be a kind word to the emotionally broken. An example of a deed mitzvah might be a providing for the homeless.
It is important to have a trusted spiritual guide to honestly facilitate growth into the next step. Sometimes, a person is too subjective to notice areas of potential growth and might miss opportunities for spiritual growth by mistakenly underestimating his/her abilities and misjudging what’s truly spiritually attainable as unattainable (and maybe, what’s unattainable as attainable). A trusted spiritual guide can provide an experienced, nurturing and objective eye necessary to avoid these pitfalls.
The soul lights on the “surrounding light”/”indwelling light” border are known in Kabbalah as “makif hachozer” or “pulsating makif”. This “pulsating makif” is continuous with the “surrounding light” and “indwelling light” on either polar end, serving as their bridge. Above, the “pulsating makif” eases and blends into the “surrounding light”. Below, the “pulsating makif” solidifies into “indwelling light”. The three levels form a continuous spectrum of soul light.
Why is this light referred to as “pulsating”? Unlike the other two kinds of soul lights, which are clearly either at home within the earthly self or beyond the grasp of the earthly self, these lights constantly pulsate in and out of the earthly self, entering and leaving; partially partaking of both realities – but not fully settled in either. Their soft pulsating touch, casts tantalizing hints of what our future levels can potentially be like. However, what they present at the moment can be visions or fantasies – depending on how a person reaches for them. This is because we do not yet have a stable grasp on the level that the “pulsating makif” is projecting into our consciousness. Yet, being the in middle these lights are poised and on the verge of streaming into conscious awareness, eagerly awaiting their full integration with our earthly selves.
The mitzvahs which cause the “pulsating makif” to download are the ones which the person finds challenging, but, not impossible to do – for this is where an individual’s range of free choice exists. Mirroring how the lights of the “pulsating makif” bridge the “surrounding” and ”indwelling” lights, one’s range of free choice stands between the extremes of what’s “too difficult” and what’s “too easy”.
It would seem logical for free choice to straddle the border between too easy and too difficult. After all, something easy is already part of the fabric of a person’s being. It’s within easy grasp to do and repeat. There’s no real “free choice” involved. For example, for a wealthy philanthropist dispensing some pocket change to a street beggar not a real act of free choice. His free choice might actually reside in what kind of smile he gives the beggar while dispensing alms.
In contrast, something too difficult to do might be too far out of reach. It could be because of psychological factors. For example, a person who was badly abused as a child might find it too difficult to extend kindness to his/her abuser in adulthood.
Sometimes the barriers can be practical. For example, someone suffering financially to the extent that he’s having difficulty feeding his family might not be able to respond to the ching of change from a passing alms can.
Innocent ignorance can also place mitzvahs out of reach (unless, they’re also common sense or part of societal norms) making them too difficult to perform. For example, it’s statistically unlikely that a person who does not know how to observe the Sabbath will manage to perfectly observe the Sabbath.
Extreme difficulty dissipates “free choice” from these scenarios. Therefore, logic clarifies that true “free choice” exists as a range somewhere between what’s too easy and too difficult.
Elaborating on how this logical pattern plays out with “ohr makif / ohr penimi”, a person’s “indwelling light” is the soul light s/he has already brought into his/her earthly self through previous mitzvahs. The behavioral patterns which draw in these lights are already familiar, entrenched and well integrated into the fabric of the personality, as the lights themselves are. In these areas of life, the person has no real challenges which can properly be called “free choice”. In contrast, a person’s “surrounding light” is just the opposite. These are soul lights which have yet to be brought in and integrated into the personality. These lights will be brought in by mitzvahs the person will grow into as part of his/her future levels of development – which for now are out of reach. Being inaccessible, their performance is not yet an option and “free choice” does not yet come into play.
Therefore, true free choice literally, lives on the border between the goodness we’re comfortable doing and the goodness which at the moment feels like too far of a stretch for us. Obviously, this border is not too narrow, but rather wide enough to be considered a real range. This is the range Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler teaches us about in his work “Michtav M'Eliyahu”. Along this range includes activities which are closer to our “indwelling light” and are less challenging, as well as activities which are closer to our “surrounding light” and are more challenging. The latter are considered our “tests of faith”. Like a true rainbow with one color seamlessly easing and blending into the next, this range is a spectrum.
The spectrum represents what’s attainable. With some effort we can accomplish these mitzvahs. This range is our spiritual frontier. By working on this level, we illuminate our earthly selves with brand new soul light. Once this happens the boundary of our free choice gets advanced upward and we attain a new higher level of free choice, allowing us opportunities to import yet greater spirituality into our earthly selves. So as we grow upward, our range of free choice grows upward with us.
This spiritual model for understanding the shifting nature of free choice might shed light on Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda’s ambivalence towards the notion of people always having free choice to perform mitzvahs. He expresses this uncertainty in his work “Duties of the Heart”, in the chapter “Gate of Trust”.[xxi] He comes out clearly stating that people are not always empowered on their own to carry out mitzvahs. He leaves the reader with the impression that whether a person has the ability to carry out a mitzvah is a Divine decision, not a human one. He seems to understand the Torah’s advice to “choose life”[xxii] as referring to a person’s inner desire to perform mitzvahs, rather than a guarantee of automatic access to their performance – if only one tries hard enough. This suggests that Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda was aware that the free choice to perform mitzvahs is variable and does not blanket every area of religious life in every situation.
By being aware that free choice is a moving range which differs from person to person and (since people are not static) even differs within the same person from moment to moment, we can learn to be tolerant and patient when dealing with others and even with ourselves. Sometimes we know that a person behaved out of alignment with Torah teachings. We might know this side of the story either because we have seen it with our own eyes or had heard it from a reliable source. However, there is another side to the story which we’re often not privy to – the question of whether it was within the person’s range of free choice to do otherwise. If we rarely know the exact range of our own free choice, how can we accurately know someone else’s range?
This awareness provides a basis for not judging ourselves too harshly either. If we have slipped and acted inappropriately, maybe we lacked free choice for the situation we faced in that particular moment. A positive response to this recognition might be to try to develop the knowledge and skills needed to properly handle the situation next time around.
[i] Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler was a spiritual mentor and educator in the renowned Ponevezh yeshiva, in Bnei Brak, during the late 1940s until 1953.
[ii] “Strive for Truth” Part Two, by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, “Michtav Me’Eliyahu” rendered into English by Aryeh Carmell, Discourse on Free Will, P. 52 – 57
[iii] Rabbi Zusya of Anapoli was a spiritual master from the third generation of the Chassidic movement. He was a disciple of Rabbi Dov Ber of Meziritch.
[iv] Ibid, page P. 55
[v] Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was a Kabbalist who was born in Padua, Italy in the early 18th century. His writings are characterized by being highly organized and philosophically intellectual. Most of his works are Kabbalistic. However, he also wrote a few Kabbalistically influenced non-mystical works.
[vi] “The Way of G-d”, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Part 1, Chapter two.
[vii] It is a question as to whether or not this applies to contemporary Arabs or other Middle Eastern people since many populations have mixed over time.
[viii] This work is quite comprehensive and is available for purchase on-line.
[ix] “Tal Orot”, by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shpielman, Section I, Chapter 4.
Tal Orot is a very interesting Kabbalistic work that is currently out of print. It was written in the 19th Century and is unusual for a Kabbalistic work of its time because of its blend of Kabbalistic currents which developed in geographically distant locations. The author’s was born into a Chassidic family in Romania. However, he was well traveled. Over the course of his life had learned the Rashash’s (Sephardic) pathway to understanding the Ari z’l’s system in Tunisia. He also traveled into Russia and learned the Chabad pathway into the Lurianic system. It is noteworthy that Tal Orot carries a letter of approbation from Rabbi Chaim Palagi, the Chacham Bashi of Izmir, Turkey and a letter of approbation from Rabbi Yosef of Kremenschuk, from the inner circle of the Lubavitcher Chassidim of that time. There’s a third letter of approbation from Rabbi Yosef Shaul HaLevi Nathanson who wrote a Halachic work “Shoel U’Mashiv”. He identifies himself as the head of the Rabbincal court of L’vov and the Galilee. I was told that he came from a Lithuanian styled Torah background. All this was probably very rare for that time. The work itself represents a beautiful blend of the different streams of Lurianic styles. Probably, the most user friendly part of the work is the first eleven chapters. It would be a great mitzvah to republish this work in block lettered Hebrew and also to possibly translate the first eleven chapters into English for the benefit of a wider audience.
[x] “Lekutei Torah”, from the Rosh Hashanah discourses, “A Song of Ascent, from my depths…” by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
The Ari z’l applies the same notion on the cosmic scale in “Etz Chaim” Part I, Gate 3, Chapter 2.
[xi] Saba D’Mishpatim section of Zohar, P.94:2
[xii] “Lekutei Amarim”, Chapter 48 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
[xiii] The Torah Anthology / Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, by Rabbi Yaakov Culi and translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Volume 1, P.115 the author enumerates all 248 bones. Tal Orot, Section I, Chapter 11, P. 31 writes about the 365 limbs in a way that it’s clear that the author is referring to blood vessels.
“Anatomy of the Soul” by Rabbi Chaim Kramer is an interesting book devoted to the spirituality of the human body. Chapters 9 and 36 discuss the bloodstream and skeletal system.
[xiv] ““Tal Orot”, by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shpielman, Section I, Chapter 2. Evidently, he borrowed this metaphor from “Shaar HaYichud V’Emunah” by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. However, he used it a bit differently by applying it to the soul instead of to the Creator.
[xv] “Tal Orot”, by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shpielman, Section I, Chapter 2
[xvi] Matok M’Dvash version of Shaar HaGilgulim, Chapter 11, P.150
[xvii] “Shaar HaYichud V’Emunah” Chapter 1
[xviii] Ibid. Chapter 1
[xix] Zachariah 3:7
[xx] HaYom Yom of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Entry for the 6th of Iyar.
[xxi] “Duties of the Heart”, by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekuda, Chap. 4 - Gate of Trust (in recent Feldheim edition translated by Daniel Haberman, Pages 426 – 435)
[xxii] Deuteronomy 30:19