Making Choices

R’ Micah Segelman

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that the creation of the world was worthwhile even for a single person. The Alter of Slobodka explains the Mishna that the creation of the entire world is justified in order to provide an opportunity for a single person with free will to choose to fulfill Hashem’s commandments (1). Rav Hirsch describes the “sublime mission and lofty purpose of man” that “The Law to which all powers submit unconsciously and involuntarily, to it you shall also subordinate yourself, but consciously and of your own free will (2).”

Rav Soloveitchick writes that “Halakhic Man is engaged in self creation, in creating a new “I” . . . Choice forms the base of creation . . . then man becomes a creator of worlds (3).” The Ramchal tells us that Hashem created man to give him ultimate goodness and perfection. Yet Hashem didn’t simply grant this to man. Only by actualizing himself through making choices could the goodness be perfect and Hashem’s will fulfilled (4).

It is commonly known that the Torah teaches us that the purpose of our existence is to strive for perfection in our service of and connection to Hashem. These sources emphasize that only through people freely making choices can this purpose be realized.

However, the ability to make decisions is not automatic. Rav Dessler writes that only a person who has successfully overcome his natural tendencies perceives his power to make choices. Someone who has never exercised self control has learned from his experiences to think that he is controlled by outside forces (5). A person must learn, as Stephen Covey writes, that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose (6).” We must discover that freedom.

We can sometimes feel powerless against external forces. There are many things which are, in fact, outside of our control or influence. Yet we often don’t perceive the opportunities we have to be proactive and exert our influence. I’ll cite seven illustrations of this principle which I hope people will find meaningful.

We often blame other people for problems that exist. Blaming other people is natural and easy. It is also self defeating. When we take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions we are empowered because we’ve put ourselves in control. Rachel Imeinu turned to Hashem in prayer only when she saw that she couldn’t rely on Yaakov to pray for her. Relying on Yaakov to take the initiative and then blaming Yaakov stymied her whereas by taking responsibility for herself she was able to come closer to Hashem (7).

When we have difficulties in interpersonal relationships we again often blame the other person. It is often possible, however, to unilaterally change the dynamics of the interaction by changing the way that we act and react. This is particularly true for parents and teachers. Changing our attitude and approach can dramatically impact our relationships.

People can feel overwhelmed by emotions. Many psychologists maintain that our emotions result from the way that we think. We can become more aware of our own thinking and thus exercise greater control over the emotions we experience. This requires becoming aware of our inner dialogue and examining the way in which we look at the world. In the words of Aaron Beck, a person “is generally aware of the following sequence: event or stimulus — affect. He must be trained to fill in the link between the stimulus and the affect: stimulus — cognition — affect.” (8).

Exposure to an outside value system can rob us of the ability to truly make decisions. For example, our attitudes to money and career are influenced by our exposure to the prevailing mentality which equates our worth with our achievements (9). We’re not truly free to make decisions until we shape our own world view. Otherwise we are pressured to conform to norms which are imposed on us.

Similarly, people who strongly depend on the validation of others curtail their own freedom to choose. The pressure to conform to other people’s expectations precludes free choice. Growth requires one to learn not to depend on the approval of other people (10).

As Torah Jews, there are aspects of our Jewish contemporary culture that can hamper our ability to make choices. Young people, especially, can feel pressured by communal expectations to conform and thus be stifled. Rav Wolbe writes, “Both planting and building are essential to the development of our children and students. We must build them. We cannot rely exclusively on their spontaneous, independent growth . . . However, if we only build our children by inserting behaviors into their personality, without providing time and space for them to sprout, then their ability to grow on their own degenerates and they turn into robots . . . they will lack initiative. Initiative flows from vivacity, but that quality rotted away long ago (11).” When we block legitimate avenues of self expression for our children or students we interfere with their proper development. And we ourselves need to develop the ability to think issues through carefully and seek the appropriate guidance where necessary. And we must learn to do that which is right because it is right – not because of what others will think.

We are justifiably proud of our Torah weltanschauung. But when improperly understood our ideology can interfere with people assuming proper responsibility for their decisions. We legitimately emphasize the importance of consulting Talmidei Chachamim when making decisions. People must, however, develop their own independent judgment. We should never relinquish responsibility for what we do. We don’t cede control of our medical decisions to our doctors though we seek to benefit from their expertise. We are the ones affected by the results of our decisions and we must be willing to stick with our choices when the going gets tough. To do this we need to feel ownership of our decisions. In the final analysis we must answer for ourselves.

There are two sources that essentially make this point. Rabbeinu Yonah says that ultimately we bear responsibility for our own spiritual growth. Receiving advice and inspiration from others is valuable. “But if we don’t inspire ourselves – what will mussarim accomplish (12) ?” Only we can change ourselves. And the Seforno explains the pesukim in Netzavim that teshuva is unlike other mitzvos. Recognizing the way to move forward in our personal growth doesn’t require the input of great scholars (13). We ourselves can and should determine where we need to improve and how to approach Hashem– it is “within our own mouths and within our own hearts to do.”

Fundamental to Slobodka Mussar is that only by appreciating our potential for greatness are we empowered to achieve greatness. Only by understanding that we have the capacity to grow can we truly grow. Let us all feel empowered to make the necessary choices.


(1) Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (The Alter of Slobodka), Ohr Hatzafun, Sefer Toldos Adam: Part B

(2) Rav Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters (Spring Valley, NY 1988), Letter Four

(3) Rav Soloveitchick, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia 1993), Part Two: IV

(4) Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 1:2

(5) Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1: Kuntras Habechira

(6) Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York 1990), page70

(7) Ramban, Pirush al HaTorah, Breishis 30:2

(8) Beck, Dr Aaron, Depression: Causes and Treatment (Philadelphia 1967), page 322. See also Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999)

(9) see Burns chapter 13, and Twerski, Rabbi Dr Abraham, Ten Steps To Being Your Best (Brooklyn, NY 2004), chapter 2

(10) see Burns chapter 11, R Twerski chapter 3

(11) Wolbe, Rav Shlomo, Planting & Building (Jerusalem 1999), page 16

(12) Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuva 2:26

(13) Seforno, Devarim 30:11-15

One comment on “Making Choices

  1. Great article.

    The point of life is bechirah — and we can’t maximize our potential until we see the room for bechirah in everything we do. Very true!

    I really appreciate how you cited everything, I can’t wait to look up these sources for myself!

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