See, I have set before you this day life
and goodness, and death and evil; in that I command you this
day to love G-d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments...
Life and death I have set before you, the
blessing and the curse. And you shall choose life
With these verses, the Torah establishes what Maimonides
calls "a fundamental principle [of the Jewish faith]
and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments"the
concept that man possesses the capacity to freely choose his
path through life.
However, the concept of "free choice" seems to
contradict another fundamental principle of the Jewish faiththe
belief in the ultimate triumph of good.
Indeed, this apparent contradiction can be discerned in the
very verses which establish the concept of free choice. After
stating, "I have set before you life and goodness, and
death and evil," and "Life and death I have set
before you, the blessing and the curse," the Torah proclaims:
And you shall choose life. What is meant by these
concluding words? Are they a commandment? A promise? A statement
of fact? In any case, the Torah has no doubts about the ultimate
outcome of mans choice between good and evil. In
the end of days, prophesies Moses, you will return
to the L-rd your G-d and you will obey His voice. No matter to what moral and spiritual depths
we may fall, no matter how far we may stray from the fulfillment
of our purpose, G-d ... devises means that the forsaken
one be not forsaken. Ultimately, we will all rectify our wrongs and
restore the innate perfection of our souls. How is this to
be reconciled with the fundamental principle of
The same question could be asked on the cosmic level. The
purpose of creation is that man should bring to light the
innate goodness and perfection that has been invested within
his own soul and in all of existence by the Creator. The ultimate
realization of this purpose is the era of Moshiach, described
by the prophets as a world free of evil and strifea
world in which man has overcome ignorance, jealousy and hatred
to bring about the harmonious world that G-d envisioned at
creation and outlined in the Torah.
A basic principle of the Jewish faith is the belief in Moshiach as an absolute eventualitythe
belief that man not only can, but actually will, attain this
goal (indeed, can the possibility exist that G-ds purpose
in creation will not be realized?). But if man has been granted
freedom of choice, how can we be certain of his eventual election
of good? Does not free choice mean that it can
go either way?
Choice in Three Dimensions
Since a choice, by definition, is not coerced, it would seem
that the word free in the phrase free choice
is superfluous. But there are various degrees of freedom that
a chooser may possess in making his choice.
All told, there are three levels of choice: compelled choice,
random choice, and quintessential choice.
a) Compelled choice
The first level of choice relates to the conventional, everyday
usage of the term. We each make countless choices
every day: Will you have coffee or tea? Should you paint the
fence white or green? Should you take the job in New York
City or the one in Missoula, Montana?
As long as no one is forcing your decision, yours can be
said to be a free choice. But are you truly choosing
freely? Each of the options confronting you is armed
with an entire array of qualities to sway your choice. The
taste of coffee draws you to it, while your sense of decorum
dictates tea, which everyone else is having. White will liven
up your gloomy backyard but will also show the dirt sooner
than the green. The pay in New York is higher but so is the
You will weigh all the factors and make your decision. But
have you chosen? Or have the chosen things qualities,
together with elements of your upbringing, personality and
past experiences, conspired to compel your choice? Ultimately,
you chose what you did because there is something about the
thing you chose that made you need it or want it. Even if
the reasons for both options were equally compelling, the
thing that you did choose was chosen because of its
particular qualities. You made a choice as to which set of
influences to succumb tohardly the epitome of freedom.
b) Random choice
But suppose that you are above it all. Suppose that nothing
about either of the choices has the power to hold you or sway
you. That, to you, the taste of coffee and social amenities
are equally irrelevant, and white and green are simply two
cans of paint. That you are utterly immune to salary figures
and the threats of a violent city.
Since the advantages and shortcomings of both options are
of no significance to you, you are in a position to make a
free (i.e., non-influenced) choice: to select
one of two options for no reason other than thats the
one youve chosen.
Nevertheless, this is still not the ultimate in choice and
freedom. True, you are free of the attractions and rationalizations
which ordinarily influence the choices people make. But how
did you choose? By a mental throw of dice? By some
totally arbitrary surge of will? The choice could have gone
either wayso where were you in all this? In what
way have you exercised your freedom to choose? You have merely
surrendered to something that is beyond your comprehension
c) Quintessential choice
We seem to be in a catch-22 situation. Is there ever a free
choice between A and B? If you choose A for a reasonif
there is something about it that attracts youthen it
is not really you who is doing the choosing; your choice
has been determined by its qualities and by your own biases
and behavior patterns. And if you choose it for no reason,
again you are not choosing, only serving as a pawn to the
capricious turns of fate.
But what if your choice is determined by the very essence
of what you are? What about the choice to live, the choice
to be free, the choice to have a child? Certainly, these choices
are motivated by a reason. But theirs is not an external reason,
nor is it a reason that is related to your external
self (i.e., your mind-set, your emotional make-up, your personality).
The reason for these choices is you. For
what is "life" but the desire to be? And what is
"freedom" if not the opportunity to express your
most deep-seated potentials? And what are children if not
the continuity of self? The quintessence of your being is
what dictates that you choose life, choose freedom and choose
The fact that the outcome of these choices is determined
makes them no less free. On the contrary, this is the ultimate
proof of their freedom. Because when a choice is truly free,
when the quintessence of self asserts itself, then the other,
anti-self option (death, enslavement, childlessness) is obviously
rejected. In other words, we usually see the existence of
more than one option as the hallmark of choicechoice,
in the conventional definition of the term, means the ability
to choose between A and B. But when it comes to the ultimate
definition of choice, the very opposite is true. When your
choice is free of all constraints and inhibitions, external
or internal, there is no other optionany
more than there is another you.
To summarize: On the first and lowest level of choice, our
choices are determined by external factorsthe qualities
of the chosen thing and the mental and emotional baggage we
lug through life. The only thing that makes this any sort
of choice at all is the existence of more than one option:
we can resist one set of influences to succumb to another.
A second, higher level of choice is one that is free of compulsionat
least, there are no identifiable factors, conscious or otherwise,
that influence our decision. Again, there are two or more
options (if there werent, it wouldnt be a choice).
But the very fact that the choice can go either way indicates
that, ultimately, it is not the person himselfthat is,
his singular essencewho is doing the choosing.
On the third, highest level of choice, there is only one
option: the course that represents the uninhibited choice
of ones deepest self. The ultimate criterion of free
choice is not Is it determined? but What
determines it? Every choice is determined by
something, be it a rational motive or an intuitive flash of
no traceable origin. True choice is when ones course
of action is determined by, and only by, the very quintessence
These three degrees of choice are actually three aspects
of the same phenomenon. Often, we experience only the most
external layer of our power to choose. But there are also
points in our life in which this outer layer is peeled away
and we are in touch with a deeperand freerdimension
of our choice. Finally, there are those rare moments when
our most deeply rooted drives assert themselves, effecting
a decision that is the very core and quintessence of choice.
Let us take the example of a choice we make countless times
and in countless different ways every day: the choice to live.
No matter how difficult and tiresome the effort may become,
we continue to elect life and survival.
As we generally experience it (if and when we think about
it at all), this is firstly a choice in the most
commonplace sense of the term. We are faced with two options:
to live, or not to live (G-d forbid). On the one hand we have
the reasons for life: its joys and rewards, our commitments
to our loved ones, and so on. On the other hand we have its
burdens and heartaches. But in the end, we decide that its
worth the effort. We have been swayed by the many compulsions
But then there are those circumstances under which all the
conventional reasons to live no longer apply,
when life and death, stripped bare of their advantages and
faults, are seen as equally significant (or non-significant).
Yet something inside us says Live! Why? There
is no why, only the simple fact that a choice has been madea
choice free of all the motives which compel it in its lower,
On this level, we experience choice as a completely arbitrary
throw of dice, which could just as easily have fallen on the
other, negative side. The chooser can offer no reason, no
explanation for his choice. This is what I chose,
is all he can say. This is what I have drawn from the
lottery of choice.
In truth, these two experiences of choice are two perspectives
on one reality. Also one who chooses life because of its positive
qualities is, on a deeper level of self (a level of self to
which lifes benefits are irrelevant), really
making a blind supra-rational choice. His compelled
choice is but an expression, on a more external level of consciousness
and experience, of the arbitrary choice which
transcends the external reasons for life.
Ultimately, however, both these dimensions of a persons
choice are outgrowths of a third, even deeper dimension which
lies at their core: choice as the uninhibited assertion of
his quintessential self. A person experiences choice on this
level when he recognizes that, ultimately, his desire for
life is not caused by its particular benefits, nor is it the
lot he has drawn from the blue yonder of arbitrary impulse.
Rather, it is an expression of his very Ian
expression of a definitive, unequivocal choice to project
his being and potentials into the arena of physical existence.
So when we choose life in many little and ordinary
ways every day, we are actually making this choice on three
different levels. On the rational and emotional level, we
choose life because of its rewards. On a deeper level of self,
where such mundane considerations are irrelevant, it is a
blind supra-rational choice. Simultaneously, the
very core of our being is choosing life, and it is this very
choice that is being reiterated by the more external layers
of our self.
The Choice(s) of the Jew
In light of the above, we can understand that there is no
contradiction between the freedom of choice granted to man
and the Torah's certainty that man will indeed choose "life
As we said, choice is a three-tiered affair, consisting of
three dimensions or experiences of the same act of choice.
The same applies to our choice to pursue good and reject evil
by following the commandments of the Torah.
On the most elementary, everyday level, we choose the path
of Torah as the most beneficial course of life. We see how
Torah refines a persons character, establishes a harmonious
social order, and imbues our lives with meaning and purpose.
After all, G-d is the designer and creator of life; it stands
to reason that His instructions on to how to live it are the
surest path toward spiritual and material fulfillment. Not
that a selfish and hedonistic life, unencumbered by morals
and responsibilities, doesnt have its enticements. Indeed,
this is what makes our choice between good and evil a choice:
we are faced with two options, each with its own attractions
and compulsions. Our choice of good is because of its virtues:
because we understand that I have set before you life
and goodness, and death and evil that good is
synonymous with life while evil ultimately spells its destruction.
But not always are the advantages of good perceivable. There
are times when darkness covers the earth and a fog envelops
a world gone amok eclipses the vitality of good and the goodness
of life. When the way of the wicked prospers while the righteous suffer. When our sensitivity
to the spiritual rewards of fulfilling the divine will is
deadened. Such conditions serve to elevate our choice of good
to a higher, freer level: no longer is our commitment to G-d
advantageous in any perceivable way; no longer is it compelled
by our reason and by our perception of reality. When we choose
good under such conditions, it is a pure choice: beyond motive,
beyond rationale, beyond anything save our blind
faith in G-d and the fact that we have cast our lot with the
fulfillment of His will.
What both these levels of choice have in common is that they
share the conventional definition of choice: the
existence of two options (good and evil). On both these levels,
we could have conceivably chosen otherwisewe could have
opted for the advantages of evil, or we could
have failed to make the leap of faith that the
second level of choice demands.
But on the highest level of choice there is no other option.
Our quintessential identity as G-ds chosen people breaks
through all our secondary and superimposed personas, and freely
translates into the unequivocal commitment to the fulfillment
of the divine will in our daily lives.
This is the deeper significance of the three separate sentences,
quoted above, in which the Torah sets down the principle of
free choice. Indeed, there is a level of which
G-d says, See, I have set before you life and goodness,
and death and evila choice that is based on the
fact that we see and sense goodness as beneficial, and evil
as detrimental, to life. There is also a higher level of choice,
on which Life and death I have set before you
when life and death are simply set
before us as equals. But both these choices are merely echoes
of the ultimate choice: You shall choose life.
When you truly choose, that choice will be life.
Also, when you choose life because of its virtues, or when
you choose it without apparent cause or reason, the true source
of your choice is the fact that you are choosingand
you, the real you, always chooses life. And because this is
the choice dictated by your quintessential self, it is the
choice that will eventually assert itself in all your
decisions. For your true self can only remain suppressed for
so long: ultimately, inevitably, it must come to light.
So it is with absolute certainty that the Jew believes that
there will come a time when the quintessential truth of every
created thing will assert itself and opt for life. This is
not in contradiction with the concept of free choiceit
is its ultimate expression.
Based on the Rebbe's talks on Shabbat Nitzavim 5725 and
Rosh HaShanah 5726 (1965)
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1.
 Another, more often cited but actually less substantial,
"contradiction" is the apparent irreconcilability
of free choice with G-d's knowledge of the future. For a
discussion of that issue, see our essay "Knowledge
and Choice" in Beyond the Letter of the Law
(VHH, 1995), pp. 175ff.
 Deuteronomy 4:30. In the words of Maimonides, "The
Torah has already promised that Israel is destined to repent
at the end of their exile and will immediately be redeemed''
(Mishneh Torah, ibid. 7:5).
 The 12th of Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles."
 Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIX, pp. 274-282.