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RABBI DAVID GOLINKIN.(Photo by: SCHECHTER INSTITUTES)
Yom Kippur 5780: An opportunity to choose life
By DAVID GOLINKIN
10/08/2019
“The basic question is this: Given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?...
Sue Grafton opens her detective novel, R is for Ricochet, as follows:

“The basic question is this: Given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?... In most cases, our path through life reflects a fundamental truth about whom we are now and who we’ve been since birth. We’re optimists or pessimists, joyful or depressed, gullible or cynical, inclined to seek adventure or to avoid all risks. Therapy might strengthen our assets or offset our liabilities, but in the main, we do what we do because we’ve always done it that way, even when the outcome is bad… perhaps especially when the outcome is bad.”

Grafton is saying that, basically, a person cannot change his or her nature or behavior. We are born a certain way and that is the way we remain throughout life. I would like to respectfully disagree, on the basis of 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom and tradition.
During the High Holidays, we repeatedly ask God to forgive us for our sins, and we vow to correct our behavior. These prayers assume that if we have sinned, it is because we chose to sin, and if we change our behavior, it is because we choose to do so. In other words, we have free will. But free will is not only one of the basic concepts of the High Holidays; it is one of the basic concepts of Judaism.

We read in the Torah potion of Nitzavim before Rosh Hashanah:

“I call heaven and earth to witness today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your offspring will live.” (Deut. 30:19).

Here, in one of Moses’s final speeches to the Jewish people, he expounds upon one of the basic teachings of Judaism – free will. You can observe mitzvot or not observe them; you can do good or evil. The Torah admonishes us to “choose life,” but ultimately, the choice is ours.

The same idea was stated by Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot (3:15), as explained by Profs. E.E. Urbach and Gad Ben-Ami Tzarfati: “Everything is seen [by God, but] permission is given [to every person to choose].”

FINALLY, THIS doctrine of free will was reiterated by two of our greatest medieval rabbis: Maimonides and Rashi. Maimonides discusses the issue in his Laws of Repentance (5:1-2):

“Free will is granted to every human being. If a man wants to follow the good path and be good, he has the power to do so; if he wants to follow the evil way and be wicked, he is free to do so…

“Let it not occur to your mind… that God decrees at the birth of a person that he should be good or evil… It is not so. Every human being is capable of becoming righteous like Moses or wicked like Yerovam, wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, and so with all other traits. There is no one to compel him or to decree what he is to do, nor someone who pulls him in one of two paths. Rather, it is he himself who turns towards any path he desires.”

Rashi discussed this issue in his commentary to the words of Rabbi Hanina (Berakhot 33b). “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” Rashi explains:

“Everything which happens to a person is in the hands of God, such as: whether the person is short or tall, rich or poor, wise or foolish, white or black – everything is in the hands of Heaven. But righteousness or wickedness do not come from God, this He handed over to human beings and gave before them two paths, and [a person] should choose for himself the fear of Heaven.”
Let us translate all of the above into a modern context:

We cannot choose whether we will be rich or poor, but we can choose what percentage of our income we will give to tzedaka (charity).

We cannot choose how much free time we have, but we can choose how we will use the free time at our disposal – to watch television or play with our children; to surf the Web or study Torah; to kill time or visit the sick.

We cannot choose whether someone insults us, but we can choose whether to forgive or bear a grudge.

We cannot choose how many years we will live, but we can choose what we will do with those years. The choice is up to us.

THERE REMAINS the $64,000 question: What principles should guide us as we make difficult moral and religious choices? I believe there are three basic questions we must ask ourselves before arriving at a decision:

First of all, what does Jewish tradition have to say about the matter?

Should I keep kosher both inside and outside my home?

Should I go to the synagogue on Shabbat?

Should I tell the truth on my income tax forms?

If I see someone drop his wallet, should I pocket it or return it?

Before making such decisions, we must ask ourselves: what does Jewish tradition have to say about this? Will this action make me a better Jew or a worse Jew? Will it help or harm the Jewish people?

The second question we have to ask ourselves before making a major decision in life is: how will it affect our families? Our co-workers? Our society?

For example, I can get a big promotion if I move to another city, but how will the move affect my wife’s job, my children’s schools, or my parents? It may be good for me to cheat on my taxes, but how will it affect the thousands of people who depend on our taxes for their livelihoods and for social services?

Lastly, before we reach a major decision in life, we must ask ourselves: am I willing to live with the consequences of this decision? All too frequently, people make crucial decisions without giving a bit of thought as to what the consequences will be. As Rabbi Akiva said at the end of the passage quoted above:

“Everything is seen, but permission is given… The shop is open, and the shopkeeper gives credit, the ledger lies open, and the hand writes; whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow, but the collectors regularly make their daily rounds and exact payment from a person… and they have on what to rely, and the judgement is true…” (Avot 3:15).

This idea is reiterated in U’netaneh Tokef, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We behold God as Judge and Witness, recording our secret thoughts and acts… You open the records and the deeds inscribed there tell their own story.”
People forget that what is borrowed must be repaid, and all of our choices are recorded by God and by our fellow man. The Bible is replete with stories which illustrate this point: the story of Adam and Eve; the story of the ten spies; the story of David and Batsheva.

But we needn’t go so far back in history. We need only read the newspapers. Did US president Richard Nixon think of the consequences when he approved the Watergate break-in, which led to his resignation? Did president Bill Clinton think of the consequences when he started his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which almost led to his impeachment? Did prime minister Ehud Olmert think of the consequences when he accepted bribes, which led to his imprisonment?

As we enter a new year, the choices are in our hands. Let us choose wisely. Let us “choose life.”

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