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Nitzavim(Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

Choice Equals Life

"Man is wise only while he searches for wisdom. If he thinks he has found it, he is a fool." (Rabbi Ibn Gevirol)

The legendary real estate tycoon stared intently at his interviewer. "Only two choices have I ever made in my life."

"And they were?" questioned the reporter.

"The first was when I decided to work seriously at being rich."

"And what was the second?"

"Recently, when I decided to retire."

"That's it?" the reporter said in amazement.

"I wish I had more", the tycoon responded, "but everything I ever did followed logically from these two decisions."

"And tell me", the reporter asked, "which was the hardest to make?"

"Without a question, the second."

"Then, I don't understand", the reporter said incredulously, "why did you make it?"

"Because," the tycoon said in a deep and soulful tone, "I realized that until that moment ... I had only made one choice in my life!"

The essence of life is choosing. It is what makes us most human. It defines who we are. It is the source of our greatest pride and our greatest pleasure.

We laud our choices, holding them high for all to see: "Come see what I have chosen; see how clever and wise I am."

When we stop choosing, we stop living. But finding meaningful choices is not easy.

In theory, you could choose whether to get out of bed or not, whether to eat or not, whether to go to work or not. But do you really have these choices? Is not doing them really a viable option?

A real "choice" has to have a reasonable alternative, the possibility just as easily to choose "Yes" as choose "No."

If we could just as easily choose between eating or not eating, if both choices seemed equally desirable and good, our lives would be very scary indeed. Every day would be a battle within ourselves: "Should I eat, or shouldn't I eat?" In the end, many people might even choose to starve!

Imagine if all our actions involved such choice. We'd be nervous wrecks by the time we got to the office!

Such a life, though, would be thrilling and exciting beyond words. It's the kind of life mercenaries sell themselves for, the excitement of having to think through the most mundane of actions: "Maybe there's a land mine under my boot. Or maybe the car is booby-trapped."

As the choices of life diminish, the more meaningless it grows.

 

***

 

VIRTUAL REALITY CHOICE

In reality, however, difficult choices are something we tend to run away from. It looks great on TV, but who wants that kind of pressure?

Thus we have a paradox: The more we limit life by removing the choices, the more boring, repetitive and meaningless life gets. On the other hand, the more we confront difficult decisions, the more exciting life is - but the more pressure it has. What should we do?

What many people opt for is the "illusion" of choice. These illusions come in many shades. Popular hues include the soap opera, murder mysteries and the NFL.

All these forms of entertainment are popular because they involve people with whom we can identify as they live through their struggles. When Joe Montana steps up to the line of scrimmage, I can determine what I would do if I were him. I "call the plays" and make choices, albeit illusionary ones. It's like a virtual reality life!

Business can be another shade of illusion. Isn't it exciting to decide where to invest and what to sell? But this, too, is not real choice. This is really just a matter of being smart enough to understand the principles, in which case you'll make more money than the next guy. There aren't necessarily meaningful alternatives. But it does give the "feeling" of real choices.

If the only result is that I can buy another car or take another vacation, then the choice is not very significant.

 

***

 

MEANINGFUL MOMENTS

The KGB officer knocked three times. "Does comrade Kapolsky live here?"

"No!" came the stern reply from behind the tightly closed door.

The officer shrugged and walked away, only to return a half hour later. He knocked again three times, this time harder.

"Are you sure Kapolsky doesn't live here?"

"Very sure!" came the immediate answer.

"What's your name?" the officer questioned.

"Kapolsky."

"I thought you said Kapolsky doesn't live here!"

Kapolsky replied, "You call this living?!"

"Existing" is easy, but "living" requires active participation and choice. We can go through a whole year just existing, but living requires 365 days of choosing life. The Torah is telling us that mere "existence" equal death. Because if we're not growing, we're decaying.

For choices to be real and meaningful, there have to be consequences. Choices that have the greatest consequence are the most meaningful. For example, the day you decided to get married or the day you decided on your career were your most meaningful days. You grew as a person because you made choices. People who don't make choices... don't change and don't grow up!

You cannot have a meaningful life if you only occasionally do something meaningful. Meaningful lives require many meaningful moments.

But how can you make meaningful choices every day? What is there to choose from?

This week's Parsha quotes God as saying:

"Behold! I have put before you this day, life and good, death and evil ... the blessing and the curse. Choose life in order that you will live, you and your descendants." (Deut. 30:15 - 19)

Both life and death are in front of us. Both are equally available.

But how do we "choose life?" Surely we don't "choose" life - that's like saying we "choose to breathe!"

What are some of the choices of life? For example:

 

  • How should you be raising your child?
  • How should you treat your spouse?
  • What would you most want to do with your days?
  • Should you work less and spend more time with your family?
  • How about trying Shabbos?
  • Or even spending meaningful time by yourself?

 

They are difficult to choose because it's so much easier to not think about them ... to keep going on our accustomed path without evaluating it ... to just "exist."

We say: "But then I can't ... It's uncomfortable..."

If you want to stop this merry-go-round called "existing," then you have to make serious choices. It's time to drop the convenient answers. Get beyond what is comfortable. You have to be prepared to do something else, to give yourself real alternatives. That's what makes up the choice of life.

The choice of life cannot be passive because life is not passive.

Do you want to be here? Do you want to do what you are doing, or are you doing it because you did it yesterday, and yesterday you did it because of the day before? Can you trace back your life to some initial decision to become rich or famous or comfortable? Perhaps some time in college, did you put your life on automatic pilot - and forget to check the gauges?

Without choices, you are no longer alive. And when you are no longer alive, you are no longer you.

 

***

 

BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS TO PONDER

Question 1: What was the most difficult choice you ever made?

Question 2: What choice are you facing now? Are you dealing with it, or trying to go around it?

Question 3: Are you "living" or are you "existing?" How do you know?

Published: September 16, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Chami, September 25, 2005 12:00 AM

This is amazing!

Rabbi,
This is great. I like to learn alot. I'm going through alot in life but I know hashem is doing it to me so I can grow from it. I'm trying to go to Israel to learn in seminary this year. I hope to go. It's all up to hashem thanks for writing this. I learned alot.
-Chami

(1) Anonymous, September 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Very real, very pertinent!!

As ususual, the Rav is hitting home hard again! It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day routine and not even realize that you are making choices by not making choices...choosing not to choose, sometimes living in denial without realizing it because choices are difficult or even painful to think about.Focussing on the present with a balance between one's head and heart may help one get through these choices a bit at a time. As always, a fantastic article! Thanks so much!

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