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Thought for the Day: Freedom to Choose -- Moshe Rabbeinu's Triumph and Bilaam's Disgrace

My stock answer to those who ask me about astrology is, "I am a Gemini; Geminis don't believe in astrology."  It's a real conversation killer.  (I actually have quite a few conversation killers; this is one that I do on purpose.)  I have a similar reaction to conversations about whether or not we have free will.  The existence of free will is neither provable nor disprovable; it's completely a matter of blind faith.  I spent more time than usual with one of the more engaged teens at the Shabbaton in Irvine last week on that topic; the poor kid opined, "Sometimes I believe I have free will, sometimes I don't."  My final response was: (A) You do have free will, and you know it.  (B) In any case, you may as will live as if you do, because it's more interesting that way.

Free will is really only part of the equation.  The Rambam says that even the stars and planets have free will, they just never choose to do anything that isn't Ratzon HaShem.  There is, of course, no way to empirically determine that fact.  Whether something always chooses to do Ratzon HaShem or has no choice (either because it is forced or insentient), it will look exactly the same to any external observer.  The reason they never do anything unexpected is because they have no inclination to do anything different.  So free will, yes; freedom choice, no.

What about animals?  Animals have free will and they also have an inclination (aka yeitzer hara).  However, they will always only do what is best for them at this moment; totally and completely selfishly, with no look ahead.  The key word here is: always.  Since I can always count on an animal to choose reward and avoid pain.  Once I can control its environment, I have complete control of that animal.  Again: free will, yes; freedom of choice, no.

Now to humans.  Humans have free will, an inclination (yeitzer hara), and the ability to look ahead (aka intellect).  That gives a human being the potential to have freedom of choice.  If a human uses his free will and intellect to always satisfy his inclination, then he is no better than the animal or even the rocks; he has completely abdicated his humanity.  That was Bilaam haRasha -- the prophet with the same potential as Moshe Rabbeinu, but chose to marry his donkey.  "Donkey" in Lashon haKodesh is "chamor", which is the same root as "chomer"/physical material.

Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, used every moment to actualize his free will as an exercise in freedom of choice.  Moshe Rabbeinu never did anything because of his inclination; every single act was a choice to do the  right thing even though his inclination was to do something else.

Giving up on fighting your yeitzer hara is nothing more than marrying a donkey.  Fighting to assert our own will and making choices in spite of your inclination is nothing less than divine service.  That's the legacy and mission of Klal Yisrael, to live every moment as branch of HaShem's planting and a source of pride.

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