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Rosh Hashanah: The Freedom to Choose

How can we find a pathway into the Yamim Noraim with this mixture of guilt, fear, and paralysis?



Rosh Hashanah is coming, and so many of us aren’t filled with awe of the upcoming season, but with a sense of anxiety and misgiving — even lethargy born of helplessness. Can we

really change? Don’t we promise to improve year after year, with no great results? And if we don’t change, then are we going to see another year of heartache and tragedy?

Difficult thoughts. It’s hard to find a pathway into the Yamim Noraim with this mixture of guilt, fear, and paralysis. What can we do?


Return and Redemption

“Said Rabi Yosei Hagalili (Yoma 96b): Great is teshuvah, for it brings redemption…”

The Maharal in Nesiv Hateshuvah explains that a person who sins is shackled to the yetzer hara — that “old and foolish king,” called so because he’s obeyed by the masses. A person who isn’t chained to the yetzer hara is free.

The idea of teshuvah as freedom is light years away from the crime-punishment-fear paradigm so many of us have. Teshuvah usually brings to mind regret, tears, shame. Freedom fills us with possibilities, expansiveness, oxygen.

The vision of freedom the Maharal paints for us doesn’t only refer to Yemos HaMashiach, explains Pachad Yitzchak (Yom Kippur, essay 11).  Every act of return brings an individual Geulah. This redemption might not involve Mashiach and a world transformed, but it’s a redemption nonetheless. It’s about finding that open crack of light that changes everything.

The Meaning of Freedom

A beach at sunset… no responsibility… endless time. Everyone’s idea of freedom is slightly different, but mostly our fantasies involve some level of escape.

But the deepest level of freedom isn’t freedom from, but freedom to. Freedom to express our highest selves. Freedom to choose. Freedom to live with purpose. Slavery — whether to an ancient civilization of Egypt or Rome, to a Southern landowner, or a British aristocrat — is a travesty not only because of the subhuman conditions. Slavery takes away that part of a person that is quintessentially human: the ability to choose.

Liberty goes hand in hand with dignity. For it’s through our choices that we can express who we are, what we want, and what we are living for. And those are all bound up with the essence of man. No wonder that Rosh Hashanah, the day of man’s creation, is replete with the concept of freedom — and the significance and consequences of that freedom.

Five thousand seven hundred eighty-two years ago, when Hashem created mankind, He did so in His image. Hashem has total and utter freedom. And we, created in His likeness, yearn for freedom, too.

Hashem declared that this day of freedom would also be a day of judgment — for true choice carries consequences, for good or for evil. Bechirah — man’s greatest gift, and that which defines him — can be used to bring light into the world, or to disconnect from Hashem. Choice and freedom are two planes of that magnificent diamond that is mankind.

Losing Faith in Freedom

It’s easy to feel the energy of freedom on Pesach. Springtime. The promise of change. The freedom of Rosh Hashanah is a more mature freedom, which rises from our subjective reality. By Rosh Hashanah, we know (or sometimes prefer not to know) exactly who we are — and from that place we affirm our agency. From the  crevices of disappointment, failure, and fragmentation, we pray and resolve to release ourselves from slavery.

That slavery is anything that prevents us from expressing our dignity.  It may be anxiety — over what we might become, what others might think of us. We might be enslaved to peer pressure — to others’ judgment of our worth. We may be enslaved to safety, afraid of failing, so we avoid trying out who we want to be. And we may be enslaved to the twins of helplessness and hopelessness.

The question of mankind’s agency is sketched out in brief but tragic detail in the biographical details of Elisha ben Avuya. Famously known as Acher, theTanna Elisha ben Avuya was the teacher of Rabi Meir — and Rabi Meir continued learning from him even after he strayed from the path.

Acher’s alienation was caused by a number of factors: at his bris, his father wanted him to be a talmid chacham for the kavod, not l’Sheim Shamayim; when he stood up in the beis medrash, heretical books would fall from his lap, and he would hum Greek songs (Chagigah 15b).

All of this hints at the philosophical question that formed the battleground of Elisha ben Avuya’s soul. Is a person’s life’s path set from the get-go? Are genetics and personal history too strong to overcome? Are we bound by those who influence our earliest years, by the circumstances that shape our life, or can we still find agency?

The Greeks came out on the side of determinism. The Rambam cites Aristotle’s famous example: when one has thrown a stone, it’s impossible to change the course of that stone mid-flight. Acher brought proof from his own life experience: his father had wanted a trophy son, and had impure intentions when sending him to learn. This, according to Elisha ben Avuya, defined his life.

Rabi Meir repeatedly begged “chazor becha — return,” but Acher spiraled into a life of sin. Witnessing the hester of the world (such as seeing a man die when performing the mitzvah of shiluach hakein), he pushed his position to its conclusion: If everything is preordained, then Hashem isn’t intimately involved in our lives and has abandoned mankind.

His struggle reached its pinnacle on Yom Kippur. On that ultimate day of return, Elisha was riding on a horse on Yom Kippur opposite the Kodesh Hakodoshim and heard a bas kol: “Shuvu banim shovevim, chutz mei’Acher — return, errant children, apart from Acher.”

It’s a famous story. But here’s a fact that turns it on its head: there was no Beis Hamikdash. It had been destroyed some 70 years earlier. There was no Kodesh Hakedoshim, a temple for Jupiter stood in its place. The only reason Elisha Ben Avuya was allowed inside Yerushalayim was because he’d stooped so low as to collaborate with the Romans.

What voice did Acher hear? That Yom Kippur, Elisha ben Avuya experienced a grand struggle in his soul: Was he lost forever, or was there hope? Shuvu banim shovevim — return, errant children.

One inner voice said: You’re always a child of Hashem, and even astride your horse on Yom Kippur, you can hear that voice.  That voice is the greatest testimony that you can change. But a competing voice said, chutz mei’Acher — apart from Acher. You’re too far gone. You’re like the Kodesh Hakodoshim that has been razed to the ground, allotted instead to Jupiter.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and consider the prospect of deep, meaningful change, the story can bring on a shiver. Our behavior often follows patterns we’ve absorbed years before or mimics the examples we don’t like, but we feel powerless to change. Haven’t we taken on so many kabbalos — about not yelling and having more patience, and being more grateful and less busy and more mindful, not to mention bentshing licht on time and remembering the shemiras halashon hour… Is there really hope?  Is change really within reach? Are we worthy of connection and closeness?

Elisha ben Avuya struggled with the same question.

Never Hopeless 

Ultimately, the question was answered only after Acher’s death. The Yerushalmi tells of how Rabi Meir was called to the gravesite of his teacher where a fire blazed. He spread a tallis over the grave and said the following words: “Lini halailah v’heyei boker im yig’alecha, tov yig’al. V’im lo yachpotz lig’alecha, v’ge’alticha anochi, chai Hashem — lie here tonight [in the spiritual darkness] and it will be morning [Olam Haba], if you will be redeemed, Good [a reference to Hashem who is Good, as it says, ‘Tov Hashem l’chol rachamov’] will redeem you; and if He doesn’t want to redeem you, I’ll redeem you, by Hashem.”

The fire ceased.

The words seem like a riddle. But when we listen to them carefully, we hear the echo of an exchange between Rus and Boaz.  The words “lini b’lailah — lie here tonight” hint at Rus’s declaration: where you lie down, I will lie down. The mention of a redeemer, the go’el, also refers to Rus, who sought a go’el, a redeemer, in Boaz.

Rabi Meir was having a final debate with his teacher. All your life, he said, you argued that people can’t change, that a person can’t escape from his circumstances. You blamed your father for having impure intentions when you were born. You looked at the world and saw injustice, a withdrawal of Hashgachah.

But look at Rus. She was a Moabite. She had the worst yichus possible. Her father never intended her for a life of kedushah, and her mother must have eaten from pagan sacrifices countless times. But she left her father and mother and homeland and embraced Yiddishkeit. She shed her old lifestyle and mindset and replaced them with new beliefs and behaviors, a life suffused with faith. When she got to Eretz Yisrael, she married an old man, who died on their wedding night. A misfortune, you might say — or abandonment?

But what was her end? She became the great-grandmother of Dovid Hamelech and the matriarch of the Final Redemption. This was Rus. And you think you’re powerless to change your life? You think you’re imprisoned by your past?

The Root of Change

What does change consist of? If we’re longing for a personality transplant, we’re going to fail. And that’s a good thing. Because Hashem wants me to be me and you to be you, with a sense of freedom that we can express our best self.

True, on one level we seek to be released from the shackles of jealousy and anxiety and self-limiting beliefs and blame and shame and that voice that tells us we’re not worthy and what rotten mazel we have that we were born in an era where everything seems to be falling apart.

But there’s a more basic key to change. And all that requires is that we embrace the power we have to choose.

Rosh Hashanah isn’t about reinvention. It’s about looking deep inside and asking: what do I really want? How can I add a level of consciousness to my life? Mindfulness to my mitzvos? Can I find within myself the freedom to make that one shift that will herald a change that may not be visible on the outside, but that fills me with purpose — and joy?

Freedom. We long for that shofar on Rosh Hashanah to bring a heady breath of freedom.

And it can.

Because freedom doesn’t require that all of life’s paths and resources be open to us. Freedom is a product of the heart and mind, the ability to stop, think, clarify, and decide: what do I want now? And that is what Rav Dessler refers to as bechirah klalis, a fundamental choice, one that shapes everything that follows. Because even if we fall and fail, once we’ve embraced our power to choose, we’re asserting the deepest aspect of who we are. We’re paying homage to our tzelem Elokim.

And that decision is the root of all change, and the pristine start for a meaningful year.

Tefillah and Change

If Rosh Hashanah is a day of accounting, we might expect to find a marathon halachah-learning session — four sections of Shulchan Aruch in six hours! Followed by communal kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim!

We don’t. We find a day of prayer. And that contains a secret of incredible beauty.

Prayer is the ultimate subjective experience. It’s about me and Hashem, in a personal place, saying words I invest with my private thoughts and my feelings. It’s not about the person I’m meant to be, it’s not about pretense or living up to certain expectations. It’s just us and Hashem, and the choice we make to connect.

Within our tefillos, we have the space to linger over the phrases that talk to us, and pause at the places where we feel uninspired and think, I may not be there yet, but simply by saying these words, I’m deciding to have some level of connection to that place.

Why Haven’t I Changed?

We’re familiar with the idea that time is a spiral. The same is true of personal development. It might appear as if we’re coming up against the same challenges, but they’re always from a slightly different place, with a different perspective.

Life takes us on a journey. We can make the choice to be open to that journey, gently birthing it inside of us — or resisting it. The knocks and bruises of life and relationships can make us humble and empathetic to others — or they can embitter us, filling us with cynicism and unprocessed sorrow. It can be a powerful act to resolve to open ourselves up to accepting life as a teacher and attuning ourselves to its lessons.

When we come to Rosh Hashanah with a feeling of acceptance of self, while wanting to make that self better, our experience can buoy us for the year ahead. It’s worth taking the time to assess just how we’ve developed. To take a simple example:  Yes, a year later we’re back on that diet, but ask ourselves, what has changed? Are we on a diet with more acceptance of self? With a greater tolerance for the process? Less preoccupied with what others think and more motivated by our obligation to self?

So yes, we face similar challenges all our lives — because we are who we are. But within those challenges, we can discern a level of change.

We can approach Rosh Hashanah with a thought: How am I different than last year? How did experience mature me? In what ways have I let Hashem more into my life?

Of course, these questions will also highlight the places where we have work to do. But that’s okay. We’re not meant to be complete and perfect people. When we stop and think, we can find many ways our maturing selves have broken self-made molds. We can stop, highlight that moment, and incorporate it into our personal story.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 758)

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