Monday, October 2, 2017

Rosh Hashanah 5778: Choose Wisely

Choose Wisely
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
September 21/22, 2017
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois

         Rabbi Shifra Penzias tells the story of her great aunt, Sussie, who lived through the horrors of Nazi Germany.  One afternoon, Sussie was riding a bus home from work in Munich when SS officers boarded and began demanding to see the passengers’ papers.  For some, this was an annoyance.  For the Jewish passengers, it was terrifying; Jews were being told to leave the bus and get in a truck parked around the corner.

         Sussie began to tremble, as tears streamed down her face.  The man seated next to her politely asked what was wrong. 

         “I don’t have the papers you have,” Sussie explained.  “I am a Jew.  They are going to take me.”

         The man exploded with disgust.  He began to berate Sussie.  “You stupid idiot!” he screamed.  “I can’t stand being near you!”

         A soldier nearby asked what was wrong.  “She’s what’s wrong!” the man yelled, pointing at Sussie.  “My wife has forgotten her papers again.  She always does this and I am just fed up!”

         The soldiers laughed and moved on.  Sussie never even knew the name of the man who rescued her in this manner.  She never saw him again.[1]

         I tell you this story not to highlight the Nazis’ sadism and misogyny; most people in this country understand that Nazis are evil.  Rather, the incident serves to illustrate the complexities of human existence on this earth.  Did the stranger on the bus exercise free will in jeopardizing his own well-being to stand up for Sussie?  Or was he placed into that situation by some Divine intervention, specifically to ensure Sussie’s safety?  Had God already plotted out the narrative arc of Sussie’s life, and was it God who determined that she would emerge unscathed from the ordeal on the bus?  Sussie’s experience evinces echoes of a longstanding theological conundrum: does God intervene in the world, charting the course of every individual?  Or do we indeed have a choice as to how our lives will unfold?

         We find similar questions when we consider many of the narratives in the Torah.  Did Eve and Adam truly have free choice about whether to eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis almost certainly would have been much shorter if they had not)?  Did Joseph’s brothers exercise free will when they sold him into slavery, or was this a necessary instance facilitated by God to move the family to Egypt and set up the Exodus?  Could Moses and Aaron truly have chosen not to hit the rock in order to provide the kvetching Israelites with water in the wilderness?  And could Abraham actually have said, “No!” upon hearing the awful and awesome call to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac?[2]

         Rabbi Susan Silverman notes that the Torah recounts two major interactions that Abraham has with God.  She writes, “Abraham once argued with God and once obeyed, and the obeying was the failed test.”[3]  Why, we might ask, does Abraham intervene on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, most of whose citizens were completely unknown to him, and yet fail to challenge the Almighty in regard to the command of the Akeda?  If we understand the Torah text to be exploring similar questions, then some possibilities emerge that may explain—even if they don’t excuse—Abraham’s behavior.

         It is possible that God, at least as described in Biblical events, has not fully ceded free will to humanity.  If this is the case, then Abraham had no choice but to proceed according to the command he had received.  The events needed to unfold according to God’s design because of the way that the interaction between God, Abraham, and Isaac fit into the master plan of the universe. 

         Read in this way, we might interpret Abraham’s actions less as a foolhardy rush to do God’s will and more as a trepidatious path that Abraham feels powerless to deviate from.  When, for instance, Abraham assures his son, “Elohim yir’a’eh lo et ha-she, b’ni—God will provide the ram, my son,”[4] we see this less of a statement of confidence in divine providence, and more of a tentative reply: “At least, I assume that’s what will happen…”  Abraham would seem to have some notion that these events are out of his control; Isaac, too, recognizes that his life is quite literally in God’s hands. 

         This notion of pre-ordained events may soothe and satisfy some who are uncomfortable with the Akeda narrative.  It would appear to absolve Abraham of some guilt for his failure to intervene when his son’s life seems to be at risk.  Yet, in solving that conundrum, the concept of predetermination opens an even bigger can of worms.

         If we were to accept that God is pulling the strings on all human actions, guiding even the most minute details of our daily life and our interactions with others, then we would have to accept that God is the source of both Good and Evil in this world.  This notion, known as theodicy, has troubled theologians—at least monotheistic ones—as far back as the origin of the Abrahamic faiths.  If there is only one God, and if we accept that God’s default mood is to be benevolent to all, and if God knows all and determines the course of every life, then we all should know only goodness.  In order for us to allow for the fact that bad things do happen to good people, we either have to reject the notion that God has power over all world events, or we have to reject the notion that our fates are predetermined.  This would mean that we have free will.  We have a choice.

         So this leads us to the conclusion that Abraham has consciously chosen to get involved in this scheme, fully cognizant of the fact that doing so will place Isaac in jeopardy.   We might conjecture that Abraham, at this juncture of his life, feels unwilling or unable to out his own self-interest—the preservation of Isaac—above what he has heard as the command of the Divine.  But whatever his motivation, it is his choice to awaken early in the morning and to carry out the preparations for this terrifying plan.  Having weighed the potential consequences of inaction, he has chosen to forge ahead.  Through this lens, the statement, “God will provide the ram, my son,” feels less like a reassurance to Isaac, and more an exasperated, “I know what I’m doing—don’t mess with me, kid.”

         The “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that had their heyday in the mid-1980s provided readers with an abundance of choice in determining how the narrative would unfold.  At the bottom of every few pages, options are presented: if you want to go down the stairs, turn to this page; if you want to climb out the window, turn to this page.  But life’s options are not always so clear-cut.  At times, we may not even understand all the choices placed before us.

         The Western world has taught us to value choice.  But we don’t always have the tools at our disposal to make the most informed decision.  And so we may second-guess ourselves, because we fear the repercussions of choosing incorrectly.  Author and psychologist Barry Schwartz explored this difficulty in a 2005 TED talk based on his book The Paradox of Choice.[5]  Schwartz notes:

“Choice has… negative effects on people.  One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation.  With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all…A study was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans.  A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual-fund company of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces.  What she found is that for every ten mutual funds the employer offered, the rate of participation went down two percent.  If you offer 50 funds, 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five.  Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it's so hard to decide which fund to choose, that you'll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and of course tomorrow never comes. Understand that not only does this mean that people are going to have to eat dog food when they retire because they don't have enough money put away, it also means that making the decision is so hard that they pass up significant matching money from the employer. By not participating, they are passing up as much as five thousand dollars a year from the employer, who would happily match their contribution.”[6]

         If people experience paralysis when faced with a plethora of choices regarding retirement investment, it should not surprise us that Abraham could face paralysis when forced to grapple with the choices placed before him at the outset of the Akeda narrative.  This is literally a life-or-death decision!

Another factor that Schwartz addresses regarding the human psyche and choice is that it’s always “easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better.”  Schwartz states, “this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”[7]

         Schwartz’s work implies that if indeed Abraham had free choice about whether to participate in the Akeda, the gravity of the choice overwhelmed him, preventing him from acting in a rational manner.  It also suggests that once Abraham made the decision to heed God’s call, he found himself continually second-guessing his actions.

         Perhaps this resonates with us on some level, because we have been in situations such as the ones Schwartz describes.  Yet still, many of us hold Abraham to a higher standard—this is not about selecting a retirement plan, or being overwhelmed by the selection of beverages at the soda fountain, or wishing you’d worn a short-sleeved shirt instead of long sleeves.  A person’s life was left hanging in the balance as Abraham mulled over his choices.  If, indeed, Abraham made a decision to proceed with the sacrifice of his child—and if he did so without any influence from God or other outside forces, I think most of us would consider that to be a flawed exercising of free will.

         So if the notion of pre-ordination is theologically unnerving, and the idea of completely free choice also is morally troublesome—or even paralyzing, where does that leave us?  Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves to envision a world in which God has plotted out an ideal for the course of human history.  Yet at the same time, we overlay onto this master scheme the realization that humans have been endowed with free will, and that the way we conduct ourselves has the power to alter the world—for good or for ill.

Rabbi Akiva taught, “All is foreseen and yet free will is given.”[8]  This seemingly paradoxical construct represents a valiant rabbinic attempt to answer the essential theological question with which we have been grappling.  Do humans have free will to conduct our lives as we see fit, or has God preordained our actions?  For Akiva and his classic rabbinic counterparts, the answer to the dilemma seems to be, “yes.”

The Kabbalists teach that God created the world to be perfect, with a clear plan for how the events of the universe would unfold.  But at some point early in the process of creation, the perfection and order of the universe was disrupted.  Since then, it has been humanity’s responsibility to engage in acts of tikkun olam—literally, the repair of the world.  When we operate within the guidelines of morality that our tradition has set forth for us, we help to bring God’s plan closer to realization.  At such times, the framework of God’s vision for the world becomes visible.

There will be those who exercise the free will they have been granted and choose to remain aloof and indifferent to the world around them.  Worse, there will be those who allow their moral compasses to veer wildly off course, flouting the vision that God has for them and for the world.  This is the price we are assessed in exchange for our free will.  But when such evil individuals make themselves known, it is up to each of us to intervene, and to make sure that goodness prevails.  Perhaps responding with such moral indignation or intervention represents the divinely-ordained purpose for which we were brought into this world.
Beyond our struggle to make sense of today’s Torah portion, there are modern practical implications to the effort to hold predetermination and free will in balance with one another.  For one thing: the human experience does not unfold within a vacuum.  Just as Isaac and the ram (and God) were each major players in the Akeda story, so too we go through our lives interacting with many other people who are engaged in this struggle between destiny and choice.  How our spouse, or business client, or teacher, or the driver in front of us at the traffic light chooses to respond in a given moment sends imperceptible ripples through the fabric of the universe and may alter the schematic that God has designed for that particular encounter, or the way we choose to respond to it. 

There are many reasons why I am a rabbi and not a theoretical physicist.  But there are ways in which that science converges with the theology that I am laying out today: chaos theory and the so-called butterfly effect suggest that minor, seemingly inconsequential alterations in the anticipated order of the universe can impact major events half a world away.  Not to oversimplify, but perhaps the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can impact a weather pattern in Japan.  Or the jumping of a grasshopper in Africa could lead to the Cubs winning the World Series.  In a similar manner, our choices when we are faced with ethical quandaries might change the grand order of the universe.  For instance, if a builder or contractor chooses less expensive construction materials, the project he is working on could collapse, injuring those inside.  But if his company uses the highest quality materials, they might not receive the bid—putting his employee’s well-being at risk.  Daily we are faced with such choices, and the way we choose says a great deal about our view  of the world, and our role within it.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, reflecting on the story of Sussie and the stranger on the bus:

“You do not exercise your freedom by doing what you want…[W]hen you accept the task that destiny seems to have set befor you, you become free.  Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.”[9]

In the stressful moments surrounding the Akeda, Abraham may not have understood that the challenge of God’s call—the test, if you will—hung in the precarious balance that Rabbi Akiva described, and that Rabbi Kushner elucidates.  Abraham may not have realized how his story, Isaac’s story, and God’s story all were intertwined in the master story of the universe and thus he may not have seen a way to exercise his free will in such a situation.  He may not have known that his true purpose was to refrain from the sacrifice, to show the limits of blind obedience to a higher power.  But the fact that, in the heat of the moment, Abraham is blind to these nuances is perhaps what humanizes the story and makes it “real.” This is why, thousands of years later, we continue to analyze and question his actions.

But what was completely obfuscated for Abraham perhaps begins to come into focus for us: that, as humans, we are uniquely endowed with the ability to change the story of the world, to respond to God’s vision of the arc of human history with our own ideas and ideals.  We pray that we may be gifted with the sense to use this opportunity wisely and responsibly.  May we have the insight to make the choices that will help each of us to enjoy 5778 as a year of sweetness, health, happiness, and blessing.

[1] As told in Invisible Lines of Connection, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996)
[2] cf. Genesis 3; Genesis 37; Numbers 20; Genesis 22
[3] Rabbi Susan Silverman, Facebook post
[4] Genesis 22:8
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Pirke Avot 3:15
[9] Kushner, p. 82

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