Whether we are aware of it or not, our entire day is full of nothing but choices. In this week's Torah portion we are told to "Choose life." Choosing life means that in whatever situation we find ourselves in, we choose to act, speak, and even think according to our highest values and goals, and to choose good. When faced with a decision between good and evil, right and wrong, we exercise free choice and are responsible for our choices. When we choose to make life-affirming choice, we choose to make the most out of life.
In our story, a boy realizes he has the ability choose more than he thought he did.
"The perfect ending to a perfectly lousy day!" thought Danny as he sat nervously outside the principal's office. It had been one of those days when nothing had gone right.
Suddenly the frosted glass door opened. The boy stood up like a soldier. Principal Green motioned to him to step inside. Danny gingerly walked into the brightly lit, carpeted office. The principal lifted the glasses from his eyes and perched them up on his forehead.
"So Danny, what happened to you today? I was told that you were late for three classes, and got into a fight in the schoolyard."
Danny squirmed as he struggled to come up with an answer. "Mr. Green, I'm very sorry, and I won't do it again." He paused. "But it wasn't my fault. I really had no choice..." Danny said, launching into his defense. "You see, I missed my bus morning. Nobody woke me up, and by the time I got to school, there was hardly any time left to play before the bell rang. So, I had to stay out a bit longer. Then the same thing happened after English class. There was this big line in front of the snack machine, and by the time I got my turn, the bell had already rung... Then at recess, Freddy started it. He called me short. I couldn't just let him get away with that, so I gave him a push to show him that short kids also knew how to take of themselves. By the time I had finished teaching him his lesson, recess was over..."
Danny threw up his hands and said, "You see, Mr. Green? I'm really sorry about what happened and everything, but I just had no choice."
He rested his case, and hoped that the principal would leave it at that. But the principal shook his head.
"Look Danny, I can see you had a rough day, and I believe that you're sorry. I know you're a good kid..."
The boy breathed a sigh of relief, but his happiness was short-lived.
"BUT..." the principal went on, "I have to disagree with you when you say you had no choice. A person always has a choice. If you really think about it, you'll understand. You chose to come into school late. You also chose to decide that buying a snack was more important than getting to class on time. And you even chose to fight with Freddy, whom I want you to apologize to, by the way."
Danny started to object, but the principal waved him off. "Go home now, Danny, and think about what I said. I hope that from now on you make choices that will allow us to only see each other at school assemblies."
Danny walked out, relieved that he hadn't been punished, but confused by Mr. Green's words. "What did he mean that I always have a choice? I had no choice over what happened today, didn't I?"
"BRR...INGG!" went the alarm clock the next morning. Danny pulled the covers tightly over his head. There was no way he was getting out of this warm bed. Maybe he'd be late for school again, but there was no choice...
He caught himself and remembered his principal's words. "No choice? Well I guess I could choose to get up," he admitted to himself as he swung his legs with great difficulty over the side of the bed.
Danny was surprised by how good it felt to get to school nice and early. Later on, he rushed to grab a quick snack between classes. As usual, the machine was mobbed. When the bell rang, he was still in line. Normally, he would wait the line out even if he wouldn't make it to class on time. But today, he found himself thinking differently. "If I don't go right now, I'm choosing to be late, aren't I?"
Danny glanced at his watch and turned on his heels to get to English class.
At recess, Freddy once again started up with him. Danny grabbed the kid by the collar and got ready to continue the lesson he had started to teach him yesterday. "I have no choice..."
But then he stopped himself. "No! I am going to choose to ignore this jerk, and play on the other side of the schoolyard." He let Freddy go and turned to walk away.
Just then, Danny caught a glance of Mr. Green, who happened to be walking out of the building. The principal, who had witnessed the whole scene, winked at Danny and flashed him a knowing smile.
"That took a lot of will power," Mr. Green said as he passed by. "Way to go!"
"The perfect ending to a perfectly great day!" thought Danny, feeling a surge of newfound energy that comes through the power of choosing good.
Q. How did Danny feel about being late, fighting etc. before he spoke with Mr. Green?
A. He felt like everything that happened was out of his control, that he had no choice.
Q. How did he feel the next day?
A. He felt great, and realized that he could choose to act differently and have a better day.
Q. What did the principal mean when he told Danny that a person always has a choice?
A. Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that they must act, speak, or think a certain way. Maybe because that's what we are used to, or we just can't see an alternative. But Mr. Green wanted to teach Danny not to get stuck in this way of thinking, but to remember that we always have the power to choose our actions and not just go with what we feel like doing. We can stop ourselves and choose to do what's right.
Q. Aren't there situations where the circumstances really leave us without any choice?
A. While it is true that things can happen that leave us no alternative how to act, yet there is no situation when we are left without any free choice. It could be that our choice is what to say, or even our attitude about what's happening. As human beings, we are always free to choose on some level.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you believe that animals also have free choice?
A. While animals may appear to make certain choices - a cat may choose to walk or sit still, a dog may choose which of two foods to eat - they are simply responding to their natural instinct. The cat is tired, or wants to catch a bird. The dog likes one food better than another. This is not called free choice, which is a uniquely human phenomenon. Free choice is a value-based choice that often compels us to go against our natural instinct. It's a moral decision between good and evil. For instance, I may like a certain food better than another, and I could easily take it, but I choose to leave it because I want my friend to enjoy it. This is not the kind of choice that an animal will ever make.
Q. Does everyone have same range of free choice or does it differ among people?
A. Each of us has our own free choice range. This means that according to our age, personality and experiences, we all have an area where we are equally pulled by competing values and may freely choose to which we will respond. For instance, for a child growing up in an inner city broken home, whether to rob a store or not is a difficult moral choice. For someone else, it would be out of the question, whereas his moral choice might involve whether or not to return extra change he has been given. It is how we choose in our own personal free choice range that determines whether or not we are growing spiritually.