The ballroom of Jerusalem's Plaza Hotel was filled with 250 well-dressed young Americans, Englishmen, South Africans, and Australians. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of one of Israel's institutions that teach a sophisticated level of Judaism to adult Jews. The attendees were all college graduates and professional people who had become observant and had relocated in Israel.
The guest speaker, Minister of Immigrant Absorption Yuli Edelstein, was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. As he surveyed the crowd, all of whom had moved to Israel from affluent English-speaking countries, he wondered what he would say to them. He himself had made aliyah from Russia, after years as a refusenik and three and a half years doing hard labor in the Gulag. What could he say to these spoiled Americans? When he finally did rise to speak, however, he surprised even himself.
Mr. Edelstein began by admitting his qualms in addressing a crowd whose background was not fraught with the hardships he had faced. He told how when he was first imprisoned by the K.G.B., he did not have with him his tefillin (the black leather boxes containing scriptural verses which the Torah bids men to bind on their arm and their head every day). His wife brought his tefillin to the prison every morning, but the K.G.B. refused to give them to him. When his official interrogation began, Yuli refused to talk. He explained to his K.G.B. interrogators that he could not speak because he had not recited his morning prayers properly because he did not have his tefillin. Within an hour, his tefillin were brought to his cell.
On the day the investigation ended, a group of K.G.B. thugs came to Yuli's cell, ransacked the place, and found his tefillin. While two men held him, a third broke apart his tefillin, tearing the sacred parchment scrolls to shreds in front of his anguished face.
"How could I not come to Israel?" Mr. Edelstein asked us in an impassioned tone. "They tore up my tefillin! I had no choice to stay in such a country. But you," he said looking directly at our rapt faces, "none of you had to make aliyah. You chose to leave countries where you were free. Nobody tore up your tefillin. Yet, you chose to make aliyah. You are much greater than I am. I consider it a privilege to be in your presence."
According to Judaism, human beings have free choice, but only in a circumscribed area. Our only real freedom is in making moral choices. Every human being has a unique "choice box"— a specific area of moral choice where he or she could truly go either way. This is the total locus of our freedom.
Most of us will not be rewarded for our assiduous obedience to the mitzvah "Do not murder."
Most likely, the decision to murder or not to murder is not a viable choice for anyone reading this article. Although the commandment, "Do not murder," is one of the Ten Commandments, when we stand at the threshold of the next world, most of us will not be rewarded for our assiduous obedience to this mitzvah. Given the society in which we were raised and the parents who trained us in basic values, murder is not a real option for us, even when someone cuts us off in traffic. In not murdering, we are not exercising free choice.
At the other end of the moral spectrum, few of us are on the exalted level of altruism where we would donate our entire life savings to pay for a life-saving operation for a child we don't know. Nor would most of us seriously entertain the option of donating a kidney to a stranger. Such decisions are above our "choice box." They are not viable courses of action, given who we are today.
In exercising the moral choices within one's unique "choice box," a person fulfills the very purpose for which he or she has come into this world: to change and grow.
This is what the sages mean when they say that at the end of life, we will be judged only according to our choices. A person born with an altruistic nature, raised in a family where doing for others was the norm, will not be rewarded for volunteering weekly at the local hospital. "Doing what comes naturally," to the extent that it means maintaining one's spiritual status quo, is a cop-out on one's life mission. We are here to struggle and stretch ourselves and become more than what we started as. All true choice implies struggle.
Recently a friend of ours, an elderly widow, lost her only brother. She wanted to sit shiva in our neighborhood in Jerusalem's Old City, where all her friends live, and inquired about renting an apartment here. My husband and I immediately decided to invite her to sit shiva in our home. To us it was unthinkable that she should sit shiva alone and have to pay rent for it. Our response was immediate and automatic, a product of the kind of homes we came from — where hospitality and helping others was a prime value — and the compassion we had learned through fifty plus years of life experience. Our decision to invite our elderly, bereaved friend was an instinctive expression of who we were. It was no longer a matter of free choice.
It is not how good we are, but how good we have become, that is the measure of the person.
For our teenage daughter, on the other hand, the question of whether to invite this elderly woman was complex and challenging. She was the one who would have to share her bedroom and her bathroom. With a teenage girl's sense of privacy, she did not particularly like the stream of guests who had so recently shared her room over the holidays. Even less did she like elderly people who ask what she feels are prying questions. My daughter sat there across the kitchen table from me struggling between her aversion to sharing her room with this woman and her attraction to doing a mitzvah of kindness. That's what the process of free choice looks like.
It is not how good we are, but how good we have become, that is the measure of the person. Moral upward mobility is our only expression of true freedom.
THE TOWER WENT DOWN, BUT THE PERSON WENT UP
The day after the collapse of the World Trade Center, the New York Times reported the story of a woman who could walk only with the aid of crutches who worked on the 64th floor of Tower 2. Fellow employees tried to carry her down the stairs. "They had me over their shoulder for 5 or 10 flights and just couldn't do it."
"Another co-worker she knew only as Louis came upon the struggling group, lifted the woman to his shoulder and carried her by himself, she said, adding that the temperature in the stairwell was at least 90 degrees."
Louis carried this woman down 54 flights of stairs, and did not leave her until she was safely inside an ambulance.
Somewhere in the smoky stairwell of the World Trade Center, Louis chose to save this woman at whatever cost to himself.
The Louis who fled from his office on the 64th floor was not the same man who emerged from the building. Somewhere between the 54th and the ground floor, Louis exercised his free choice and chose good. It may not have happened on the landing of the 54th floor when he picked up the woman and hoisted her over his shoulder. At that point, he may have been acting from an innately altruistic and heroic nature. He may have been constitutionally incapable of ignoring the incapacitated woman without at least trying to help her.
But somewhere in the smoky stairwell of the World Trade Center, when his muscles started to hurt, and the heat got to him, and the weight on his shoulder slowed him down more and more, and hundreds of panicked people pushed past him fleeing for their lives, somewhere—perhaps on the landing of the 34th floor or the 24th floor—instinct gave way to choice, and Louis chose to save this woman at whatever cost to himself.
The Times article related that around the 15th floor a rescue worker told Louis that the woman was out of danger, and suggested he leave her there and evacuate the building by himself. One of Louis's inner voices must have echoed the proposal: "Surely I've already done enough. No one else would have done half of what I did to save her. Even a professional fireman says it's good enough." Louis chose to heed the other voice which said: "She's not safe until she's in a vehicle which can take her away from here."
The Louis who had arrived for work that morning was a man with the potential for greatness. The Louis who emerged, sweating and aching, from the World Trade Center was a great man. Only moral choices make us into the persons we can become.
We are living through difficult and fearsome times, times which confront us with greater challenges and more opportunities to choose. Each one of us has the freedom to choose good. Our choices need not be on the scale of newsworthy deeds. Choosing beyond our comfort zone is intrinsically heroic. Stretching ourselves beyond who we are at this moment necessarily makes us bigger.
Choosing beyond our comfort zone is intrinsically heroic.
If you are a person who has no affinity with elderly relatives, right now call your great aunt who lives alone. She's probably more frightened than you are by F.B.I. warnings of imminent terror attacks.
If you are a person who has been nursing a grudge against friends or relatives who treated you badly, right now forgive them. When life is uncertain, who can afford to take chances with what might be a last chance?
If you are a person who is too busy to invest time in old friendships, break out of your character mold and right now write a letter to an old friend. When letters are carrying deadly Anthrax spores, why not send letters full of love and concern?
If you are a person who tends to give more attention to building your capital than building your family, right now make a daring reversal of your priorities. When the economy is shaky, your only real assets are the people who love you.
If you are a Jew who has dallied with the idea of mitzvah observance, but never had enough time, knowledge, or inclination to make it happen, right now commit yourself to practicing one mitzvah — whether it's eating kosher, learning Torah for fifteen minutes a day, or keeping one Shabbat a month. Every mitzvah forges a bond between you and the only eternal, immutable, omnipotent Reality in this frenetic world.
In the Torah, God tells us: "I have put before you today life and good, death and evil. Choose life."
Choosing good is our only real and enduring freedom.