As best expressed, perhaps, by the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, 18th Century Talmudic prodigy, Master Kabbalist and more), humanity is created to be the beneficiary of God’s Divine Love and Goodness. The greatest reward we can experience is to be directly attached, as closely as we’re able, to God Himself. We achieve that through our approach to Him, as Jews utilizing the system of Torah and Mitzvot that are bestowed to us, by imitating Him as much as we’re able (closeness in the spiritual worlds is defined in similarity rather than, in this material world, geometry). Foremost, we try to, like Him, be creators for the benefit of others. But very high on the middot, character qualities, we also want to emulate is independence. As God requires no other being to provide for His welfare, we also strive to the partial independence of earning our own benefits rather than receiving them as hand-outs.
As we really are strongly hard-wired and conditioned (as the contemporary advertising industry makes great use of), we find that ultimately all we can really control are our own choices. So, ultimately, our challenge is to, from moment to moment, choose options that lead toward completeness and reject those which lead us to loss.
While we might now, intellectually, realize that all the “game” is comprised of is always making the right conscious choice (you’re disqualified from just choosing randomly and lucking out, because integral to the choice itself is the desire to make that choice, not necessarily for its own sake, but because it leads to the ultimate wholeness of which we’re capable of bringing to the world.
If things were left here, though, the system wouldn’t work. We would always, “naturally”, choose to “do the right thing” because we knew ahead of time that it would yield the maximum reward. Thus, we’d be choosing so selfishly that we’d really no longer have any choice. We’d be like lab rats with a no-brainer task which always yields the treat. And, of course, we’d no longer be earning what we get through our own efforts and real choice.
Free will is a very important concept in humanity and its place in the universe. This isn’t a philosophical, political or psychological truth, but one that leads right back to our goal of being as independent, thus resembling The Creator, as much as possible.
And so the Ramchal explains that each person is suspended exactly between good and evil with the choice to move in either direction. And we face that challenge moment to moment, always with the potential of amazing progress, always with the danger of disastrous self-destruction.
In order to maintain our dynamic equilibrium, the bad choice, even if we can clearly see a disastrous outcome, must be exactly as attractive as the positive choice. This is what necessitates what we call the יצר טוב and the יצר רע, the Yetzer Tov (compulsion to create good) and the Yetzer Ra (compulsion to create evil). The Yetzer Ra exists solely for the absolutely necessary function of making the wrong choice equally attractive as the right one.
I confess to, perhaps an age-appropriate, curmudgeonly, low view of much of contemporary American culture and its exports. Selfishness and immediate gratification, always present, have been transformed from embarrassing shortcomings we each have to the highest socio-cultural value. “Soft-core” pornography is no longer even considered questionable for children as witness popular music, fashion and reality television. I’m not the first to draw parallels to the rapid fall of Roman civilization. The trivial is crowned supreme and critical thinking and seriousness are condemned as elitist. Not only has much of the Jewish world internalized so much antisemitism that it brands efforts for Jewish survival as “triumphalist”, xenophobic and imperialist, so has much of western civilization become infected with shame of its own success and values.
But I promised, with the title at least, to present a contrarian view to all these negative contemporary phenomenon, so I’m obligated to deliver.
Remember, in order for each of us to achieve our personal best, to reach our goals in growth and wisdom and refinement and kindness, we need to over and over again make right choices. Not only that, but we have to be motivated solely by wanting to do the right thing each time we make a good choice. That requires that as our “rewards” and benefits for each right choice becomes ever more apparent, the appeal of each bad choice has to equally increase. Being drawn, socially or emotionally or through manipulation to make ever worse, ever more destructive, ever more self-enslaving choices actually reveals just how great the potential power is in our right decisions and actions. The harder it is to be unhip, unpopular, to be judged judgmental, the more attractive it is to give up our unique Jewish practices and values, reflects, perhaps, how close we are finally approaching a world where we’ve completed our work in bringing Creation to its glorious target.