There is a fascinating philosophical debate regarding free will: do we choose our thoughts and actions, or is everything about us predetermined (by God, fate, genes, childhood experiences, and/or societal influences). While psychology cannot conclusively determine which side is correct, interesting research has been conducted as to the psychological consequences that flow from our beliefs regarding free will. People who believe that they act under their own volition and agency, tend to have higher academic success, better job performance, lower stress levels, and higher life satisfaction than those who believe they do not have free will. This is likely because when we believe we have free will, we have a higher sense of personal control over situations, which leads us to take more personal responsibility for our actions (see Gooding et al., 2018).
Pirkei Avot and its commentators generally endorse an ethos of self-determination. We have free will and we can and should be agents of change when it comes to our own personalities. Yes, there are external factors that influence who we are and our current situation—whether it be God, our parents, neurochemicals, or the stock market; yet, after all that external input, we are still in control of our behaviors. Rabbi Akiva pithily summarizes this approach by stating, “everything is foreseen but permission to act is still granted” (Avot 3:15). This indicates that we have the capability to act freely, despite any theological or philosophical challenges.
In another interesting application of this idea, Hillel famously remarks “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” (Avot 1:14). There are dozens of explanations of Hillel’s cryptic lesson. One relevant to our current discussion is that of Rabbi Yosef Alashkar (Mirkevet Ha-Mishna, 16th century), who writes that Hillel teaches us about the importance of free will. There is no other being or force—human or divine—hat forces us to choose the good or bad path. We all have free will to choose what path to take. It is up to each one of us to decide.
Rambam’s interpretation of Hillel’s maxim supplements Rabbi Alashkar’s gloss by highlighting the connection between free will and personal responsibility in the attainment of virtues, which according to Rambam is the purpose of Pirkei Avot. In Rambam’s discussion of free will in his introduction to Avot (Shemona Perakim, chapter 8), he writes, “the acquisition of virtues and vices is entirely in the power of man, in consequence of which it is his duty to strive to acquire virtues, which he alone can acquire for himself, as the Rabbis in their ethical sayings in this very tractate say, (Pirkei Avot 1:14) ‘If I am not for myself who will be for me?’" Hillel, according to Rambam, is emphasizing that we all have free will to improve ourselves and acquire virtues, and therefore we all have the personal responsibility to motivate ourselves and follow through. We cannot shirk our responsibility to improve ourselves or put the blame or burden on others.
As we continue on our journey through Pirkei Avot, it is important to internalize this message. We have both the free will and the responsibility to work on improving our character. Besides for the beneficial psychological outcomes of believing in free will, it is a fundamental religious and ethical principle that will set the stage for our future growth.