Football and Free Will

Gridiron Victoria: Geelong Buccaneers. Photo by John Torcasio. Unsplash.

In “Seven Pillars of Faith,” Rabbi Yitzchok Breiter, a devoted follower of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, writes the following:

The foundation of all of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings is to know and understand that everything that happens to us, both spiritually and materially, including what we ourselves do, whether deliberately or unwittingly, willfully or under compulsion – all comes about through the decree of God.

Rabbi Yitzchok Breiter

Compare Rabbi Breiter’s statement with this one from Talmud tractate Chullin 7b: “One cannot even cut his finger unless Heaven so decrees.”

Yet, in Part 2, Lesson 110 of Likutey Moharan, an anthology of Rebbe Nachman’s major teachings compiled by Reb Noson, the Rebbe’s chief disciple and faithful scribe, we find this:

I heard that someone once asked the Rebbe about free will. The Rebbe answered him very simply, “Free will is in a person’s hands, literally. If one wants, one acts, and if one does not want, one does not act.” I copied this down, because it is very relevant. There are many people who are very confused about this issue, having become so habituated to their behaviors and ways from the time of their youths. They thus feel that they have no free will and that they are unable to change their behavior. But the truth is otherwise, for every individual certainly possesses free will at all times on all issues, and one acts as one wants to. Understand this well.

Likutey Moharan, Part 2, Lesson 110

How might one go about understanding these two views taken together—everything is determined, yet man has free will? In the 1980s, I got the glimmering of an answer from watching Monday Night Football.

My first job—taken while I was still in graduate school studying philosophy—was as a computer programmer for an insurance company in Philadelphia. Most of my work colleagues were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about sports. I didn’t know much about sports, however. I remember once asking if the Phillies was Philadelphia’s football, baseball, or hockey team. It was an honest question but seemed to label me negatively with my comrades. I wanted to fit in better at work and realized that to do so, I should learn at least a little about sports. It was autumn, so I began my learning with football. Watching Monday Night Football on television seemed just the way to go about it.

After the first two or three weeks of doing this though, I found it challenging to get up Tuesday mornings and go to work with a mind ready to tackle complicated programming problems. The games ran so late. Serendipitously, about this time, I acquired a VHS cassette player/recorder. I bought it originally to have the freedom of watching movies I wanted to see in the convenience of my home following my schedule While reading the instruction booklet, I found out that I could not only view pre-recorded videos but could also record programs from television. This suggested a solution to my sleep problem.

I decided to watch the first quarter of Monday’s game live, then record the remaining three quarters. Afterward, I would watch a quarter a night, finishing Monday’s game Thursday night. After doing this for some time, my philosophical mind kicked in. I found myself on Tuesday watching the game’s second quarter and thinking that the players were playing as if the game were not over, as if the outcome had not yet been determined. But by Tuesday evening the game had been over almost 24 hours, the results known and published. There was nothing the players I was watching on the screen could do to change that.

Hmmm…The outcome was determined, but the players were acting as if they had free will and as if the game’s results were still up for grabs. Is there any difference between having free will, and thinking, believing, and acting as if one has it. Maybe not.

I’m an orthodox Jew. I framed what I was thinking within a religious context. God knows everything, knows the end from the beginning. Note: it’s not just that God has a good idea about what might happen, is some super-Freud in understanding what I will do, the decisions I will make, how I will think. God knows. The classic question at this point is: if God knows, really knows, what I will do, not just has a good idea about it, can I do anything other than what God knows. Can I surprise God, say, “Hah, fooled you!” The answer, of course, is “No! Absolutely not.” But then what about my freedom to choose, my free will?

Though God sees the beginning from the end, I don’t. I can’t. Sometimes I may have a good idea of what might happen next, but I don’t know for sure. And I don’t know for sure only about others; I don’t know even about myself. It’s this, my not knowing the future, that makes me feel as if I have the freedom to affect it, to change it.

Assume it’s the last fifteen seconds of Monday night’s game, viewed Thursday night on tape. The losing team has possession of the ball and their coach calls a timeout to decide between trying to make a long field goal, running the ball, or having the quarterback throw a Hail Mary pass. The coach wrestles with what is, as the coach experiences it, a real, and challenging decision that he thinks might win the game for his team. But the game is already over.

God knows every frame in the video that constitutes my life, from the first one to the last one, for he created it. He knows where I will die, when, and the manner of my passing. I will live every frame in my life’s film, one frame at a time, in order. It’s God’s creation of my life, and how I have to live it, that allows me to hold determination and free-will together. So it seems to me.

Are you ready for some football?

All the best!

©2019 All Rights Reserved

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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