How can there be true free choice?

Translation of a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Presented with permission from the publisher, Sichos in English. Source: Sichos in English, Shabbos Parshas Bamidbar, 24th Day of Iyar, 5744.

[It is] explicitly recorded in Scripture (Exodus 19:1): “In the third month … they [the Israelite nation] came to the wilderness of Sinai.”

As everything in Torah, the fact that this month [of Sivan] is called “the third month” provides lessons for living. Thus, although one may think numerical names given the months have no connection to the theme of the month — since as long as the months [originally] didn’t have other names, they had to be called something — nevertheless, the fact that the “Torah of truth” calls the month by these numerical names indicates that they reflect their themes. […]

Free choice depends on the number 3

[As one example,] “three” is associated with free choice, that which distinguishes mankind from other creatures. Mankind is different from the rest of creation in that they [the other creations] are forced to carry out the task for which they were created; a person, in contrast, serves G‑d out of free will: he has the choice of serving G‑d or not.

Free choice is possible only when three things are present.

– If there is only one possibility, it is obviously impossible to choose another.

– A person must have two possibilities before him for choice to exist. In the words of Scripture (Deuteronomy 30:15): “I have placed before you life and good and death and evil.” A person can then choose “life and good” or “death and evil,” as Scripture continues to say, “Choose life!” However, that there are two possibilities — ”life and good” or “death and evil” — does not yet make for a totally free choice, for the knowledge that one way is “death and evil” must force a person to abandon that path and go in the path of “life and good.”

– To ensure that it be a perfectly free choice, G‑d created the Yetzer Horah (Evil Inclination) with the function of convincing a person that the path of death and evil is really “good.” In this way, free choice becomes possible.

The role of the Evil Inclination

How does the Yetzer Horah achieve this? It shows the person the pleasure that is to be derived from sins, and persuades the person that the reward he will get in Gan Eden (Paradise) for observing [his commandments from Torah] is uncertain at best, and certainly too far off in the future to worry about now. Better to enjoy the pleasure of this world now.

Further, the Yetzer Horah says, the path of “death and evil” was created by G‑d just as the path of “life and good.” And surely G‑d would not create anything evil — therefore it must also be “good.” Why then follow a path which yields reward only in the World to Come, when one can choose a path which is “good” in this world!

Since the Yetzer Horah makes evil seem good, a third thing is necessary to enable a person to choose the real good. One needs a yet loftier thing which will teach a person the truth: that one path is good, and the second path is evil. Then a person can choose the good path.

It is for this reason that free choice is associated with the number “three” specifically — for three things must be present in the choice between good and evil: The path of life and good, the path of death and evil — or in different terms, the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination — and a third force to clearly indicate which is the true good.

In greater clarification: When there is a third determinative idea to reconcile two contradictory ideas, it does not mean that this third idea negates one of the two opinions. Instead, this third idea encompasses the two, and the two agree to the third’s opinion. And since the two opposite ideas both agree to the third — the third idea is the true one, and the halachah [Torah law] is as the third.

For example, the rule, “When two Biblical passages [seemingly] contradict each other, the meaning can be determined by a third Biblical text which reconciles them.” This third text does not negate one of the two [seemingly] contradictory passages (since both are written in Torah). Rather, it clarifies the true meaning of both of them, such that there is no longer a contradiction.

The true meaning of the Evil Inclination

So too in the concept of free choice. When a person chooses the path of life, he does not totally dismiss the other path as having no real existence. Indeed, he knows full well that this other path is also created by G‑d; what causes him to choose the path of life is the recognition of the true meaning behind the path of “death and evil” — that such a path was created by G‑d so that a person has free choice. That is, so that one should walk in the path of life not because there is no other path, but because he chooses not to go in the path of evil (which he could have gone in, since it does exist). Likewise, the true meaning behind the Yetzer Horah’s enticements is that one’s reward for observing [his commandments from Torah] is that much greater because he had to resist the Yetzer [Horah]’s blandishments.

Because one’s choice is determined by revealing the true meaning behind the opposite path, it follows that this path, too, “agrees” to the deciding opinion. And for this reason, the idea of free choice is associated with the number “three”: For when both of the (formerly) opposite ideas agree to the third, the choice made has the full force of truth.

The third day of creation

We can now understand what “third” means in terms of time and days. The first day of creation is termed by Scripture (Genesis 1:5), “one day” [instead of “the first day”], for then “G‑d was one and alone in His world.” Concerning the second day of creation, it is not written “it was good,” for on that day Gehinnom (the Purgatory) was created — evil. More particularly, on the second day of creation, “schism was created,” meaning, there was now something present besides G‑dliness — the world’s existence. [It came as a result of the separation of the physical realm (“the lower waters”) from the spiritual realm (the “upper waters”)].

On the third day, “it was good” was said twice, once for the work done on the third day, and once for the completion of the second day’s work. In other words, the third day effected that “it was good” should apply also to the second day. How? By revealing the true meaning behind the evil (Gehinnom) — that its purpose is so that free choice could exist. Similarly, the purpose of mundane things in the world (not evil [and not holy]) is that they should be permeated with G‑dliness.