Choice

Kol Nidrei Night, 5777/October 11, 2016

I heard from several of you that the visual aids in last week’s sermons were the very best part, which I am choosing to take as a compliment. I thought I’d bring one into this evening’s sermon as well.

_images_uploads_album_Album_Cover_7It’s a copy of “This is Where I Live,” a 2016 release from Soul legend William Bell, and side one, track one provides us with a foundational text for this evening’s teaching. The song is called “The Three of Me,” and it begins with these words:

 

Last night I had a dream
and there were three of me.
There was the man I was, the man I am,
and the man I want to be.

I love that image. Life’s journey is one on which we can and do grow, and at a certain point that growth is so complete that we are essentially someone else. Furthermore, this feat can be accomplished multiple times in the course of one’s life. 

I find this observation about our capacity for growth and change all the more interesting in light of this fact: William Bell also wrote the iconic Albert King hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Maybe you’ve heard it: “Born under a bad sign. Been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

712XQGdJsrL._SL1428_Here’s that album cover, decorated with a variety of symbols representing chance, fate, and bad luck. Snake Eyes. A Black Cat. Friday the Thirteenth. Poison.

The two songs, penned more than fifty years apart by the same writer, offer two very different views of the human condition, don’t they? One celebrates our capacity to take charge of our destiny; the other bemoans our lot as hapless victims of circumstance. That divergence is memorable, and worth exploring. Let’s do so by connecting these two songs to a third, one which I hope is becoming familiar to you:

Min hametzar karati yah, anani bamerchav yah….

A quick review from last week: meitzer is constricted, dire, desperate, narrow, distressed. Merchav is everything that meitzar is not: expansive, generous, sky-like, and free. Among the possible translations of the verse we just sang: “From the narrow place, I called out to God; God answered me from the wide expanse.”

On Erev Rosh Hashanah we thought about the meitzar in terms of struggle and pain, which sometimes serve us as catalysts for growth. On Rosh Hashanah Morning, I tried to make the case for a merchav-based conversation about Israel and Palestine, one that pushes back against the increasingly narrow lines being drawn in some parts of the Jewish community.

As we continue to unpack the verse over this High Holiday season, let’s color meitzar and merchav a little bit differently tonight. As Yom Kippur begins, I hear it this way: meitzar is hemmed in, railroaded, without the capacity to choose our own path. Merchav, by contrast, is a place of imagination and possibility, a landscape that allows for choice and acts of will.

*

The thrust of the Jewish tradition affirms free will. We’ll say it tomorrow morning in our Torah reading so very clearly: “Choose.” We are called upon to choose life, goodness, and blessing. How cruel it would be to call us to choice while condemning us to a life in which choice were impossible! Indeed, how unfair it would be to hold anyone accountable for anything they did, up to and including murder, if they had no choice in the matter. This point is made by Maimonides, who forcefully rejects the premise in these words (Shemoneh Perakim 8):

Do not believe the absurd ideas of astrologers, who falsely assert that the constellation at the time of one’s birth determines whether one is to be virtuous or vicious, the person thus necessarily compelled to follow out a certain line of conduct. We…are convinced that…our conduct is entirely in our own hands, that no compulsion is exerted, and that no external influence is brought to bear upon us that constrains us to be either virtuous or vicious, except inasmuch as…we may find it easier or harder, as the case may be, to do a certain thing; but that we must necessarily do, or refrain from doing, a certain thing is absolutely untrue.

Take that, young William Bell! No one is “born under a bad sign,” or a good sign. We are free. As Maimonides says it elsewhere (Hil. Teshuvah 4:2):

Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam. [Similarly,] he may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, or [acquire] any other character traits. There is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him towards either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses.

Affirming the truth of free will, the tradition nevertheless acknowledges that it’s complicated. The truth of our human experience is that conditioning, habit, and in extreme cases addiction, make free will seem an illusion.

This possibility is played out in our texts as well. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the locus classicus for the conversation. As God brings plague upon plague to the Egyptians, we are told each time of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, his stubborn refusal to let the Israelites go. A careful reading of the text yields this observation: after each of the first five of the ten plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. It is only from plague six forward that his agency is reduced, and God hardens his heart. In other words, after a certain point Pharaoh became a slave to his instincts and his history, and acted accordingly. The transformation into hard-hearted Pharaoh was so complete that it seemed as though there were no way out. But that was the illusion, and not the freedom of choice which is in fact present at every turn. And awareness of that truth is always available. It is always possible to wake up.

Twentieth-century Mussar teacher Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz offers advice on what to do when the cry from the narrow place is answered with an awareness that choice is present, and change is possible. He calls the answer “awakening” and suggests this: “When you experience that moment of awakening, recognize its tremendous value. Integrate it so thoroughly that it becomes a part of you. Thus will it put down strong roots in your heart, supplanting the opposing instincts that had governed your actions previously.” Or Maimonides, again: one who has repented of one path and chosen another is able to say אני אחר ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים — “I am someone else; I am not that person, who did those things.” Or William Bell, for that matter: The man I am becomes the man I was, as I become the man I want to be.

*

We’ve nearly arrived at the first of several opportunities the Yom Kippur liturgy offers us to take a deep dive into our own selves. Who are we? Who were we? Who do we hope to be?. These sections of our service, called vidui and s’lichot, are the central feature of the Day of Atonement.

Vidui means “confession” or “acknowledgment,” and consists of the enumeration of our missteps. Close on the heels of this acknowledgment are prayers of s’lichot, or “forgiveness,” in which we proclaim our belief that sincere repentance is a catalyst for renewal and healing. Four times over the course of the day we will enact this exercise, an exercise predicated on the notion that true repentance is met, immediately, with forgiveness and with a fresh start. As our machzor has it, we “clear away the debris of the past” and “begin anew” (YK, p. 319).

As we work with vidui and s’lichot this year, I invite you to think of vidui as a calling out from the narrow place, and s’lichot as the response from a wide-open space. To name our misdeeds is to own our narrowness. Indeed, the last of the sins we’ll name during tonight’s vidui is tzarut ayin, translated idiomatically in our machzor as “a selfish or petty spirit,” but more literally as “a narrowing of the eyes.” Could it be any clearer? “For the sin of staying in that narrow place, believing that we are irredeemably fated and powerless to change, forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.”

On this Day of Atonement, and on every day that follows: May our eyes be open wide to the possibility of teshuvah. May our minds be open wide to the knowledge that the choice to turn is ours. May our hearts know that an answer from that wide-open place is always at hand. In this New Year, may we become the people we are meant to be.

Amen.

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