Today is 09/23/2023 -
“I, God, have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore chose life.” Deuteronomy 30:19]
A famous midrash teaches that, at the time that God was deciding whether or not to create humans, God’s “heavenly court” pled with God to create them as automatons or not to create them at all, fearing all the harm and evil that they would do. Instead, God decided to create us humans with free will, imbuing each human with both a yetzer hatov, “a good inclination, a propensity to do good,” and a yetzer harah, “an evil inclination or a propensity to do evil”—with it being left up to each of us to decide for ourselves which inclination to pursue.
Yet, theologians, philosophers, and social scientists have been asking for the past 2 millennia, whether we humans, in fact, really have free will, pointing to the profound impact “nature” and “nurture” have on the decisions made by most humans?
Even our own Tanach, or Bible, is not of one opinion on this question. In the Book of Exodus, for example, we read that the “sins of the fathers are passed down to the 3rd and 4th generations…,” with the children of alcoholic parents more likely to abuse alcohol, etc. In a later section of the Bible, in the section known as neviim, or “The Prophets,” Jeremiah asks the question, “should the children’s teeth be set on edge, because the father has eaten sour grapes”—answering his question in the negative, Jeremiah makes clear that the sins of the parent remain with the parent and do not curtail the child’s free will.
As with many complex questions in life, perhaps the most accurate answer to the question, “do we humans truly have free will,” is neither “yes” or “no” but “both yes and no,” for on the one hand, one’s free will is inevitably going to be impacted by both our genetics and by our behavioral experiences; while on the other, how we respond to the myriad influences on our lives, over which we may have little or no control, is often a matter of “free will.”
In her recent autobiography, Karine Jean-Pierre describes how her black parents immigrated to this country from Martinique, when she was a very young child. Her father found a job as a cab driver, while her mother, a home health aide, never learned to read English.
Karine relates how, as a child, she was sexually abused by an older male cousin for a period of three years, leaving her badly traumatized.
Growing up in a strict Catholic household, she admits having been riddled, as a teenager, with feelings of guilt upon realizing that she was attracted not to men but women. She describes, in her autobiography, the look on her mother’s face as “revulsion” when she finally garnered the courage to tell her, with the two of them not again discussing her sexual orientation for decades.
Despite all these challenges, and wanting very much to please her parents, Karine worked hard to become a good student, even dreaming about becoming a physician. Her dream turns into a nightmare, however, when she did not do well on her MCAT, pouring cold water on her dream, which, in turn, led her to feel so badly about letting her parents down that she attempted suicide.
Up to this point in her life, her family of origin and her life experiences had made the concept of “free will” in her life far more mythical than real. After her suicide attempt, however, she gradually began to put the pieces of her life back together.
After a series of odd jobs, she went to work for a conservation group, and while there, a co-worker became a mentor for her, something that she had never had before. Recognizing her potential, her co-worker suggested that she enroll in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Upon graduating from Columbia, she began building her resume, starting at the bottom, working her way up to becoming a political aide in the Obama White House.
Just this past week, Ms. Jean-Pierre, who is now in a loving relationship with her longtime partner, a CNN reporter, and is the mother of a 7 year old daughter, was appointed by President Biden to be his press secretary, and in doing so, making her the first black, immigrant, and lesbian person ever to hold this position.
Victor Frankl, noted Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, father of the field of logotherapy, Holocaust survivor, and author of the classic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” points out that even in the Nazi killing camps, the inmates still had the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to exercise their “free will” by pursuing their yetzer hatov. He contrasts those prisoners, who when seeing a fellow inmate actively dying, would walk over and steal the little food the dying person may have had, with those prisoners, in similar situations, who would walk over to the dying person and offer to share with him the little food and water that he may have had.
No, it cannot be seriously questioned that raw talent and intelligence, families of origin and opportunity, are often distributed unequally and unfairly to us humans, thus having a significant impact on the scope of our free will. At the same time, as Karine Jean-Pierre and many thousands of others have clearly demonstrated, as the Jewish Tradition teaches, that as much as “nature” and “nurture” may influence our lives, we still have the opportunity, the ability, and, yes, the responsibility to make the best of whatever hand we may have been dealt in life.
Thus, let each of us go out into the world this summer exercising our free will in positive and constructive ways and by establishing a warm and intimate relationship with our yetzer hatov.
Wishing your loved ones and you a safe, relaxing, and joyful summer! Kol Tuv! Everything Good!