But if we are nothing more than products of our environment, and if there is no real freedom in what we do, in what we think, and in what we want, can we be held responsible for our actions? And if we are not responsible for them, who is?
To answer these questions we must first understand the four factors that comprise us, and how we can work with them to acquire freedom of choice. According to Kabbalah, we are all controlled by four factors:
The “bed,” also called “first matter”;
Unchanging attributes of the bed;
Attributes that change through external forces;
Changes in the external environment.
Let’s see what each of them means to us.
1. The Bed, the First Matter
Our unchanging essence is called “the bed.” I can be happy or sad, thoughtful, angry, alone or with others. In whatever mood and in whichever society, the basic me never changes.
To understand the four-phase concept, let’s think of the budding and dying of plants. Consider a stalk of wheat. When a wheat seed decays, it loses its form entirely. But even though it has completely lost its form, only a new stalk of wheat will emerge from that seed, and nothing else. This is because the bed hasn’t changed; the essence of the seed remains that of wheat.
2. Unchanging Attributes of the Bed
Just as the bed is unchanging and wheat always produces new wheat, the way wheat seeds develop is also unchanging. A single stalk may produce more than one stalk in the new life-cycle, and the quantity and quality of the new buds might change, but the bed itself, the essence of the previous shape of the wheat, will remain unchanged. Put simply, no other plant can grow from a wheat seed but wheat, and all wheat plants will always go through the same growth pattern from the moment they sprout to the moment they wither.
Similarly, all human children mature in the same sequence of growth. This is why we (more or less) know when a child should start developing certain skills, and when it can start eating certain foods. Without this fixed pattern, we wouldn’t be able to chart the growth curve of human babies, or of anything else, for that matter.
3. Attributes that Change through External Forces
Even though the seed remains the same kind of seed, its appearance may change as a result of environmental influences such as sunlight, soil, fertilizers, moisture, and rain. So while the kind of plant remains wheat, its “wrapping,” the attributes of the wheat’s essence, can be modified through external elements.
Similarly, our moods change in the company of other people or in different situations even though our selves (beds) remain the same. Sometimes, when the influence of the environment is prolonged, it can change not only our mood, but even our character. It’s not the environment that creates new traits in us; it’s just that being among a certain kind of people encourages certain aspects of our nature to become more active than they were before.
4. Changes in the External Environment
The environment that affects the seed is in itself affected by other external factors such as climate changes, air quality, and nearby plants. This is why we grow plants in greenhouses and artificially fertilize the land. We try to create the best environment for plants to grow.
In our human society, we constantly change our environment: we advertise new products, elect governments, attend schools of all kinds, and spend time with friends. Therefore, to control our own growth, we should learn to control the kinds of people we spend time with, but most importantly, the people we look up to. Those are the people who will influence us most.
If we wish to become corrected—altruistic—we need to know what social changes will promote correction, and follow them through. With this last factor—the changes in the external environment—we shape our essence, change our bed’s attributes, and consequently determine our fate. This is where we have freedom of choice.