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A Matter of Choice

   How we can — and how we should — make the choices that will shape our lives


n my sister-in-law’s fridge hangs a magnet that proclaims: “Olam Haba, I wouldn’t trade it for The World.” That pretty much says it all. Our mission here is about swapping less for more, keeping our eye on the goal, and saying no to what’s less right, and yes to what’s more. But memes are easy. What’s harder is acting upon what we know. How we can — and how we should — make the choices that will shape our lives

Telling My Future

Everyone loves talking about bechirah, as if we’re free to make any choice we want. But let’s face it — if I know you well, and know the last batch of choices you’ve made, I can predict your next choice fairly accurately. How much freedom do we actually have? Aren’t our decisions usually the sum total of our personality, upbringing, and past choices?

A dear friend was sitting next to a woman in her eighties a few minutes before boarding a flight.

“I made it by the skin of my teeth,” the older woman shared cheerfully. “I’m always late, it’s just how I am.”

My friend was taken aback. “Good for her that she’s so self-accepting, but is that the end of the story? Does she think she’s a finished product?”

She kept talking about the merrily resigned octogenarian.

“I’m often late,” she explained, “but I assumed that by the time I was eighty, I’d be different. That woman was a mirror to the future, showing me how things will look if I don’t start making changes now.”

Young women are often frustrated by their husbands’ inability to wake up on time. Added to the frustration is his confounding alarm, waking up the entire household except for the shluffing fellow himself.

Why keep setting an alarm that you know will be useless? Well, it will take a certain number of attempts, but at some point, Hubby will start to get up rarely, and then occasionally, and then frequently, and then consistently. All those nano struggles will add up to success. Far fewer forty-year-olds are sleeping through their alarms than twenty-year-olds. Spiritual muscle building entails digging your heels in for lots of failed attempts on the mat, and trying again and again.

The innate human ability to improve is called bechirah chofshis, free choice — it’s the autonomy to select good over bad.

When a rock falls on poor Billy’s head, no one blames the rock, but if Johnny throws the rock at his head, then we rightfully get annoyed with Johnny. Even when we take the same wrong path repeatedly, the frustration with ourselves or those around us comes from the knowledge that we’re not a collection of predetermined atoms and molecules, and we can do better.

Quality spiritual building is a patient brick-by-brick process, not abracadabra prefab.

Note the words of the Rambam: “Permission is given to every human to place himself on a good path that will lead to being a tzaddik... And if he wants, he can place himself on a negative path that will lead him to becoming a bad person. He has that leeway” (Teshuvah 5:1).

Not, good morning, will you be a complete tzaddik or rasha today? Rather, with the realistic choices you’re making, what are you building, which path are you heading down? Slow and steady, that’s how to recreate yourself.

Fun fact: At around age 11 or 12 for a female and 13 or 14 for a male, the brain’s prefrontal cortex has its most impressive growth spurt. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of our mature thinking, like abstract reasoning, delayed gratification, empathy, and value-based solutions, and it kicks in just as we become halachically accountable. Are you old enough to fast? Then you can do this choosing thing.

Problem is, by the time we’re adults, our behavior is fairly hardwired through a combination of childhood nurture and nature. Let’s not fool ourselves into calling those actions choices — rather, they’re involuntary knee-jerk reactions.

“ ‘The tendencies of a human heart are negative from his youth’... Babies are untamed creatures... self-centered, and… focused on satisfying desires. These traits settle in firmly. Meanwhile, a child gets older, his intellect matures, and his developing strength of character starts countering his natural tendencies. However... already inhabiting the territory are negative traits that had a head start and have already become part of his nature. And so we can understand [the above pasuk to mean] that ‘the cause of bad in a person’s heart is his youth.’ ” (Malbim, Bereishis 8:21)

Bechirah is the hardest job we’ll ever be entrusted with, and it’s what This World’s about, yet bona-fide choosing is a rare occurrence. It’s tough to break the kiddy, me-centered encryptions, but that’s exactly what bechirah’s about: doing what’s right despite what’s familiar and embedded. Sometimes we can do it on our own, sometimes the correct move is to reach out for help, but options we have.

I’m An Individual Like All My Friends

If free will raises us above the animals, and is the best thing in our lives, why do some people seem to be bent on drastically narrowing down alternatives by removing potential challenges from their landscape and living such sheltered lives?

Overexposure in the name of trust is silly when giving a child unsupervised reign in your toolbox — and unfiltered cyber access for any adult is no different.

Yes, when we choose properly, we show our superiority to animals. But that skill can only be cultivated when partnered with a healthy respect for the human ability to royally mess up.

I’m wondering about a word like sheltered, with its charge of smothering thought and emotional independence. No one lives under a rock, and parents across all communities struggle with protecting their children while allowing them the exposure and autonomy that teaches them to deal with life.

Sure, there are parents who are overly vigilant and fearful, inhibiting children’s decision-making abilities and stifling character development. That’s called helicopter parenting, has nothing to do with religion, and is found equally in Lakewood, Westchester, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I’ve noticed that sometimes when people dismiss certain lifestyles as sheltered or unreasonably narrow, they may not be so knowledgeable of basic halachic issues.

Is it extremism to shy away from midsummer family trips to the big city, or from locales where separate swimming venues are rare and creative heterim abound? What you see as cloistered might be better categorized as halachically informed or consistent. (See Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’ezer 21 or Mishnah Berurah 75 on the subject of shemiras einayim.)

Take higher education. Course content at secular colleges can often present serious and complex d’Oraisa concerns. What about the odds of developing casual male-female friendships on campus, which is problematic (Igros Moshe Even Ha’ezer 60), or the impracticality of avoiding non-Jewish friendships, because how will you get notes from classes missed over Yom Tov? While halachah encourages cordiality with our non-Jewish neighbors, it disallows friendship. Many university predicaments can be dealt with halachically if they must be, but it’s understandable if one isn’t interested in the conundrums to begin with. Baruch Hashem, there are avenues for quality education that are more in keeping with core Jewish values.

When we unwittingly encounter conflicts — and fear not, everyone’s life is full of them — we pray for the strength to withstand them. But before they arrive, our morning prayers request “It should be Your Will... that You don’t bring me to nisayon.” A portion of Mesilas Yesharim is devoted to zehirus, which is about looking out for spiritual risks and not being too confident. Clearly, refraining from knowingly entering turbulent waters is a good thing.

Passive Income

People plant themselves in communities where everyone seems to wear the same thing, vacation in the same places, and attend the same frum college. Are you even rewarded for your follow-the-crowd choices that come from not exposing yourself to the world?

American women living in Israel play a game in which they walk behind seminary girls and try to guess which one-year program they attend. Pleated skirts are created quite unequally and are accompanied by an array of very telling hair possibilities. A knee-grazing ‘slinkie’ with leggings and sneakers? The devilled details, if you want to get good at this, are in the varied states of socks or lack thereof.

The force of a tzibbur is hefty. The company we keep is a reflection of who we actually are.

One general decision, like signing up for a seminary, or settling in a certain community, will influence details you never thought of. This goes way beyond flip-flops or white-soled Steve Maddens. What topics you chat about; how much chavrusa time after a day at the office is reasonable; what you consider a normal family size — so much is absorbed from park bench schmoozing.

Do you get credit for involuntary progress that arises from larger general decisions, like the shul you attend or where you send your kids to school? Yes, because you chose it initially. So you get rewarded from all that follows from that initial choice. However, realize it goes both ways. If you hang with a less soul-conscious crowd and your standards inadvertently slide, you’re accountable (Michtav Me’Eliyahu II 67-71).

Ships in the Harbor

I’m 19 years old and I have no idea where I’ll be at 30, much less 50 or 60. How can I possibly make major life decisions now?

It’s true. You need to make responsible, reasonable decisions, and there’s no way to have a handle on all of the variables at this point in your life. Wherever I look, computer programmers are entering chinuch and teachers are retraining in computers.

Car headlights only show you the next leg of the journey; when you get two miles down the road, you’ll have the vision you need there too. We’re shown what we’re supposed to see when we’re supposed to see it.

There’s no formula to ensure totally smooth sailing, and that’s scary. It doesn’t warrant avoiding decisions because of the uncertainty, though. It’s sad when fear of the unknown or need for unrealistic security prevents people from starting school, buying a home, or getting married. Going overboard in the pursuit of the perfect solution can imply a wish to control one’s destiny, something we know isn’t possible. By letting go a bit, we can work on overcoming the fear and proceed forward despite the inevitable fog.

What’s important is to be able to look back and reconstruct the intelligent, well-guided decision that was made at the time with the information that was available. That can be a huge comfort when things don’t go as we had hoped.

Beyond that, we can be assured that we are in His Hands, and whatever happened is what was meant to be. That bitachon can enable us to stay away from the pitfall of bemoaning choices we couldn’t — and shouldn’t — have avoided, and allow us to move on to making the next set of choices based on the current reality.

Put Up Your Feet a Bit

I know people who wanted to become better but stretched too far — and couldn’t retain what they gained, or even snapped.

Since you’re using words like stretched and snapped, let’s keep going with that rubber band metaphor. Keeping an elastic pony holder in mind can be helpful. Pull it a bit, and it works well. No pull, and it’s useless. Pull too taut and…uh oh.

Emotional elasticity varies. There are times that we can do more, and times we can’t handle rigor. When vulnerable, be gentle with yourself.

How to measure where we’re holding? We each have internal prompts that alert us that we’re making changes too swiftly, overdrawing energy, or pushing ourselves beyond reasonable limits.

To do a quick check, ask yourself: When I look in the mirror, do I see my familiar self? Do I still have the hobbies and interests I always did (of course allowing for advancing spiritual sensitivity and different stages in life)? If you’re changing too quickly to recognize your core self, it’s time to stop and rethink the trajectory.

And finally, always keep in mind that air and sunshine, decent eating, more than minimal sleeping, and basic exercising are holy, more important than most other things, even your Tehillim group. (My mother is laughing right now, but I do try to follow my own advice.)

Downhill Is a Breeze

I’ve always been told that to grow, I need to pull myself out of my comfort zone. Is it so bad to be happy knowing that I’m fine the way I am?

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that you’re coming across a bit religiously sleepy.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person, but life — and your happiness quotient — is more about how you advance in your Yiddishkeit than a static objective rating on the tzaddekes scale.

The descriptors you correctly use for growth — “pull”, “out of your comfort zone” — are active, like those live kosher fish swimming upstream.

The law of entropy states that the world naturally deteriorates without energy input. Passivity leads us downstream.

The Torah describes the choice of good or bad as “life or death” (Devarim 30:15). Meaning, says Rav Noach Weinberg, you’re always picking between proactive choosing — essentially living life or passively choosing not to choose by going spiritually unconscious — sort of playing dead. He calls it “comfort vs. growth.”

On the growth side is the yetzer tov, dressed up as the harder, energy-demanding option, and on the other sits the yetzer hara, inviting you to just give in, and go with the flow.

It would be so convenient if the correct choices were easier, granting you moral high ground, and netted you Olam Haba too. But that wouldn’t make sense, because if it were all so easy, humans would be nothing but soft blobs. Greatness comes through work and effort.

So we’re making headway on that deep philosophical question of why it’s so hard to get out of bed in the morning but so tough to get into bed at night, or, why G-d created a 25-hour circadian cycle but a 24 hour day. Comfort vs growth, my friends, comfort vs growth.

When leaving Moav, Naomi tries sending Rus back. But “when (Naomi) saw how strongly (Rus) was pushing herself to go with her, she stopped dissuading her.” (Rus 1:18) Why?

Rus was “pushing herself,” resolutely moving herself forward to keep at it despite a pull to return home. Her difficulty in persevering proved that Rus was making the right decision (Gr”a ad- loc). The Nefesh haChaim warns that if you find yourself instinctively pulled in a certain direction, stop and examine your motivations, because that instant comfort may be a sign that you’re off track.

There’s more. Human beings are programmed to operate based on happiness. If you’re still reading this article, it’s because you think that doing so will give you more pleasure than turning the page. Same for every other decision you make. If everyone is making decisions based on what will make them happy, why isn’t the entire human race permanently ecstatic?

The answer, explains Rav Noach Weinberg, is confusing comfort and happiness. They feel very similar at the time, but are actually opposites. Happiness is not a destination (“When will I be happy already?”). Happiness is a side effect of living a meaningful, forward-moving and constructive life. The comfort born of complacency leaves you feeling empty and unsatisfied, whereas good strong decisions that lead to progress and growth give you the inner satisfaction that true happiness — and life — is all about.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 742)

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