Take Your Pick
Translated and Adapted by Rafaella Levine
Man’s claim to fame is his free will. This is what distinguishes him from all other worldly creatures. Where animals are driven by instincts that are generally foreseeable, man surprises.
When it comes to human beings, instinct, nature, and genetics are all at play. Still, man can do the unexpected. The element of choice frees man from the bonds of instinctual behaviors. It puts him in charge.
In confronting any given situation, there are endless possibilities as to how a person may react; it is possible to transcend one’s very nature. This capacity for choice is the trademark of a human being; it is what raises him up from a programmed machine to the quintessence of creation.
The Torah repeatedly emphasizes this idea. “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d… and the curse: if you do not hearken….” (Deuteronomy 11:26).
If man did not have the ability to choose between good or bad, the Torah’s commandments would be meaningless. There would also be no room to reward or punish a person’s deeds, if he were merely a product of his upbringing and genetic mix.
It is in our having choice that we resemble the Almighty, Who brought the world into being out of His own Choice.
Choice is the mother of creativity, a way in which we mimic our Creator. The potential for free choice stems from our having been created in His image.
Where might we exercise our free choice? Perhaps the possibilities seem few and far between. A person may make the decision to observe Shabbat and keep kosher, but then he’ll fly with that for a while; live his choice. A few years down the line he might make another big decision, perhaps to move, or marry, or have a child. Then he’ll live with the consequences of that exertion of free will. Is he likely to make another big choice in the very near future? Not particularly. Like a driver speeding down the highway, he knows he’s on the right track until he sees his exit.
In reality, though, the choices we face are daily. Back to that verse from this week’s parsha, “I present before you today a blessing and a curse” (ibid). Every day. Numerous times per day, in fact, we find ourselves at a crossroads where we are choosers. There are roads that branch before us, of short-term thinking, destructive habits, instinctual reflex, long-term investment, altruistic reasoning, generosity…. Which will it be? (Of course sometimes, you can choose more than one at a time. Life is complex.)
Often our instinct kicks in and we react passively; we just do what we are programmed to do. Free will is like any other habit; we need to exercise our choice muscle, and we will gradually realize how much really is in our control.
Even if you have chosen your general direction, you are making minute to minute choices. And we are each challenged by the drive to behave thoughtlessly or destructively – however subtly. This is our nature, but our nature does not control us. We are in the driver’s seat.
In discussing free will, choosing orange juice over milk for breakfast is beside the point completely. We can decide on our own menu, but still be caught in thoughtless, instinctual behavior. We are talking about controlling our reactions: will I tell her what I really think, even though it will hurt her? Will I subtly get back at him for the snub he threw my way, or will I rise above the pettiness of the moment?
Every significant choice we make is choosing between blessing or otherwise, a fulfilling life, or wasted potential. In every choice, we are either aligning ourselves with the spirit of our Creator and the power of creativity, or just letting ourselves slide.
A blessing or a curse.
All in your hands.
Or rather, in your mind. It is the thoughts spinning around your head that bring either blessing or, so to speak, curse, to your life.
Have you ever met someone who brims over with joy de vivre like a fountain perpetrating life? Do you know anyone who is always complaining and finds everything annoying? This is, by the way, irrespective of how much they have in the bank, or how healthy they are: it is about which thoughts they choose to focus on.
Did you know, that when a thought comes knocking on your door, you can choose whether or not to admit it? If it is a constructive thought, one that will bless your day, welcome it in and bask in it. If it is of the guilt-provoking breed that will drag in a trainload of even more depressing images, you don’t have to let it in. Acknowledge its presence, say thank you for coming, and close the door. You don’t need it, and you’re in charge.
Think about it.
The more we grow aware of how full our day is with opportunities to exercise our free will, the more we will be choosing the blessing, the more we’ll be choosing life.