Erev Rosh HaShanah 5778
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
The meaning of life is often found in where you place the emphasis. This is true especially in language. A little comma — a jot, a tittle, a little mark — changes the entire meaning of a text. Let us take a text from the Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, for example: U’v’charta hayyim, l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha. If I place the comma where it is normally found, the translation would be: Choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.
Now, allow me to move the comma back one word, placing it between the first two words: U’v’charta, hayyim l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha. We would now read: Choosing — live in a such a way as to give life to you and your children. Not: Choose life. But: Choosing as a way of life. This is what I have chosen to speak about this day.
Often, we find it important to discern the differences between humans and other living beings. Some philosophers have said that it is the gift of speech that separates us from the animals. Others have said that it is our ability to dream. On this day, I would like to suggest that it is our ability to make choices that places humanity as the crown of creation.
Our Torah speaks in broad language, painting the picture of choosing with wide brush strokes — Arrayed before each of you are the choices between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. And yet, life is not lived making such easy choices. Life is lived, not in black and white, as in television sets of old; life is lived in shades of grey, and vital vibrant colors, tantalizing, attractive, and seductive.
The life of choosing is not an easy life at all. Each of us is confronted with myriad choices each day. Some choices are easy: what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, which roads to take on the way to work…. These are the choices that take little effort, and produce little pain. But some choices are painful ones, calling into account ethics, morals, values, and areas in between. As the late Fred Friendly z”l, moderator of the Public Broadcasting Service series on Ethics in America which was popular in the late 1980’s had stated at the start of each episode, “Our purpose is not to make up anyone’s mind but to open minds: to make the agony of decision making so intense you can escape only by thinking.”
The choices of life, if we take up the cudgels, cause us to wrestle and squirm — they make us think, they make us doubt, and ultimately, they make us live.
Yet, there is great danger in the life of choosing. Often, we make the wrong choice. We choose the wrong word, the wrong tone, the wrong moment, the wrong action.
How often have we tried to comfort someone, or apologize for something that we have done that has caused pain – with our best of intentions, our mouths betray our feelings. We must choose, not only what to do, but what to say, and how to say the things we mean.
There is a Hasidic folk-tale about a choice in action: One day, a young man who had heard about the great powers and intellect of the Baal Shem Tov decided that he would make a great journey to see this sage on Yom Kippur. After praying with his own congregation on Rosh HaShana, he set out on his long trek. Everything went wrong on his journey. His donkey got sick. He took a wrong turn. Finally, one day’s journey out of the town where the BST would be teaching for YK, his cart overturned, it started to rain and he thought that he would never get there in time. He then ran into a group of shabbily dressed men who said, “Brother can you stop, we have only nine men here and we need to make a minyan.” He shouted, “Are you kidding, I’m running to see the BST.” Away he went. He finally arrived and saw the great BST, but after the end of Yom Kippur, when it was the BST’s habit to greet everyone, the BST ignored him. He ran over and said, “I have travelled a long and hard journey just to see you, why wouldn’t you greet me?” “Don’t you know,” said the BST, “you were brought into this world by God only to join those nine men in prayer! Instead, you ran away!” Each of us has choices to make, and things we are to do — we must choose correctly.
What is interesting about this Hasidic tale is that it points out the very difficult nature of making choices. In our story, the young man wants only to gain knowledge — to sit at the feet of a great master. His concern is for the long-term gain of the experience. In his rush to fulfill his wish, he decides to forego an experience that seems ephemeral — short-lived — something just of the moment. His challenge is ours — could he have known, as the BST did, that his purpose was to fill out that minyan and allow nine others to pray? Can we know when to forego one opportunity in order to pursue another?
It has been said, “Kasheh l’hiyot yihudi — It is hard to be a Jew.” I would like to amend that phrase to read, “It is even harder to be a serious practicing non-orthodox Jew” for we are those for whom one of the guiding principles of our religious life is informed choice. We study the tradition, learn from the sages of ages past, and choose how to practice our faith. We take to heart the statement from Deuteronomy 6:18, “Do what is good and right in the eyes of the Eternal.” Our choices must be ones that will be deemed ‘good’ and ‘right.’
But we may choose what is right and good, and decide that we can do it later. Another story. There were once three demons who gathered together to compare results of their attempts to corrupt human beings: The first says, “I tell them that there is no God. But they are too smart, they don’t believe me. They look around the world and see all of the wonders and they know that I have lied.” The second says: “I tell them that there is a God but that God did not give them the Torah. But they are smart. They look inside the Torah and see all of the wisdom and they know that I have lied.” The third says: “I tell them that there is a God, and that God gave them the Torah — but I say to them: what’s the rush? You have time to do what God wants tomorrow” and that works!
Sometimes, we choose to do something that we know to be right, and rather than delay, we rush to do good. We read in Pirke Avot (4:23): “Do not try to placate your friends at the height of their anger; do not attempt to comfort them in the first shock of bereavement; do not question their sincerity at the moment when they make a solemn promise; do not be overeager to visit them in the hour of their disgrace.”
There are so many choices — so many options that we could be frozen into inaction. But our fear cannot prevent us from acting, nor should our fear prevent us from having faith in our actions. Living a life of choosing is living with ambiguity. We must learn to live with ambiguity: almost to revel in the tensions that the complexities of life present to us. It is these tensions — the very frustrations — in which living truly takes place. The power to choose is power indeed. Sure — it would be easier if all was laid out before us — arrayed in such a way as to make all choices disappear. But wouldn’t life be boring, moving from point to point, knowing each and every step of the way. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, life is a series of doors at the end of a corridor, behind each door is another corridor which ends in another series of doors. Whitehead saw life as an eternal version of the old Television game show, “Let’s Make A Deal.” Every moment we have a choice of Door # 1, Door # 2, or Door # 3, or the box behind the lovely Carol Miller!
The command to choose gives us free will: with this we gain freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of action. Of course, there must be limits to these freedoms, but at what cost? Today, we are challenged, and challenging these freedoms — testing the First Amendment of the US Constitution that we hold so dear.
The events in the months since our recent presidential election have challenged us severely. As a candidate, President Trump seemed to have given license to bigoted speech. The legitimization of racism, oppression of women and the LGBTQ communities, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant tropes are unprecedented. For example, in the streets of Charlottesville, slogans reminiscent of 1930’s Nazi propaganda were heard and seen on signs carried by those who “wanted to take America back.” Chants of “The Jews will not replace us” were proudly shouted.
What should we do when we hear others choosing to disseminate such evil rhetoric? We cannot forget the words of John Stuart Mill who warned that if we suppress that which we are sure is in error, we lose a benefit as great as truth itself, namely, “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. insisted that the freedom of thought means, “not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Benno Schmidt, the past-President of Yale University had said, “Much expression that is free may deserve our contempt. We may well be moved to exercise our own freedom to counter it.” Obviously, Schmidt was a hard-liner on the issue of freedom of thought and expression, but is there not some rhetoric that is so heinous, so hurtful as to demand it being silenced? Here is where we must exercise the difficult process of choice. We must find limits, that will not limit the freedom of ideas, but will limit those who sling invectives simply for the sake of inciting one community against another.
In 1991 there was a riot in Crown Heights, just a mile or two from my house. Because of a car crash black residents and Orthodox Jews were pitted against each other — it was frightening for all people of good will. In an interfaith statement, language was suggested to counter the choice of those who sought to prompt hate and hateful action. The statement said, in part, “We call upon all citizens of all colors and faiths to : Avoid recriminations over past wrongs whether actual or perceived because that is a fruitless path that leads to more recriminations and retards healing; tone down inflammatory rhetoric and demagoguery which only serves to whip up base sentiments and violent behavior; denounce scapegoating by which we blame others for all of our troubles, and bigoted statements and actions by which we generalized that if one member of a particular race or religion is dishonest or evil, all are equally guilty….” Now so many years later, those words seem so apt – so necessary.
In Jewish tradition, since God created the world – God created the light and the dark. Within humanity there is the capacity to bring about great good or great evil – yet free-will is given. While we know that God makes peace in the high places – Oseh Shalom Bimromav – it is up to us to make peace here on earth.
The power of choice is awesome in scope, affecting every aspect of life. We cannot shirk our responsibilities to choose the right action, the right word, the right moment, the right tone, the right gesture, the right intention….
U’v’charta, hayyim l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha. Choosing — live in a such a way as to give life to you and your children. Not: Choose life. But: Choosing as a way of life. May we all make our choices, God give us the strength and insight to make the right choices – more often than not!