In the various roles I’ve had as a principal or a teacher, as a department chair or even in my role of “dad” I’ve often had to deal with a dilemma where it seems like two different interests are in conflict and a decision has to be made in which one person will be a winner and one the loser. My natural inclination is to try and find ways in which everyone can walk away satisfied (as the ever quotable Michael Scott said, “win-win-win!”) but I have come to learn reality sometimes prevents that. Sometimes a schedule has to be made that works for most people but is difficult for a others, or perhaps a limited pool of money has to be spent to help the most needy or the greatest number, necessarily leaving out other choices that could have been made. At times the best I can hope for is to create an equilibrium of misery. In situations such as this I have come to realize what I think of as Administrative Principle #3 – all decisions, even good ones, have consequences. (Yes, I have a list of Administrative Principles. No it’s not, like, actually written down some place.)
Action and inaction (which I should point out is also a decision) can bring with it a natural consequence of the decision, which of course can be either positive or negative. But there are two other consequences that occur with each decision we make. The most obvious is that each decision changes the range of options that we have for the next round of choices we have to make. But the other, consequence, both more subtle and more powerful a force in shaping our lives, is that the decisions we make change who we are. In the physical world we are aware that each time we lift weights we shape ourselves by strengthening our muscles. The same is true in our spiritual lives. Each time we make a decision, we are reshaping our psyche. We make ourselves more or less generous each time we respond to an opportunity to give. And then that new person we’ve helped form will be the one that responds to the next situation.
The end of this week’s Torah reading offers us a choice that is about as stark as it gets.
רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע
Look! I have placed before you today Life and Good and Death and Evil . . .
נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ
I place before you today the blessing and the curse. Choose life in order that you and your children will live.
Hashem makes it sound so simple! It’s obvious, just choose Life and Good! The problem of course is that these verses make it sound like this choice is a one-time deal. But in the way we experience life we know that we are faced with the opportunity to make the world better, to make relationships better, to pray with devotion, or to be lazy, to be spiteful, to be self-centered and conceited MANY times a day. Why is the Torah making it sound like, “one and done”?
I think the path towards understanding this begins a rather unlikely place – the laws of korbanot, sacrifices. The Talmud discusses a dilemma – what would happen if you have two sacrifices ready to be brought, and one of them is obviously holier because of the particular rules that govern it, and the other sacrifice is more common, more frequently done. Which of these sacrifices has precedence, the infrequent but holier one or the more frequent less holy one? Although the answer to this question has some complexity to it, for practical purposes, the way we experience the answer is that we give precedence to something that is more frequent. Why in the world would that be? What is the message to us in that? The Talmud is hinting that we believe that things change, they become more important, through more frequent action. The more times you give the more generous you become. The more times you make the effort to pray with intention, the more devout you become. It’s not the big flash in the pan, special moment that changes us into who we can be, it’s the day in day out decisions that accumulate over time that change us. Frequency is more important that objective holiness.
The Torah sets up this choice of Life vs Death not to tell us that we only have to make this choice once, but to tell us that this is the choice we are making each time. We are always moving along one way or the other on this continuum.
Working with teens for so many years but formally and informally it occurs to me that there is another insight here. It is undoubtedly true that the frequency with which we choose something has the greatest impact in forming who we become, but it is not the only thing that impacts us. Besides the Power of Every Time there is also The Power of One Time. It happens that in a particular moment, for whatever reason, we achieve something that ordinarily we are not capable of. Sometimes with teens it has been as simple as a Sunday morning, getting to minyan on time and being totally “in it.” Or times when a teen stretches themselves to help a peer who is not as popular, at the risk of their own social capital. (That might seem mundane, but in the life of a teen it can be truly altruistic, beyond what many adults are capable of.) For adults it might be a time we sat down for Torah study and found that we were in that moment of flow, were time has no meaning and only ideas and insights matter, and the world fell away. Or it might be that time when we managed the exigencies of the day with simcha, unstressed and calm, and with the sense that Hashem was with us. Those moments also define us. They show us the best of what we are capable of and they set a goal for us to work towards during the hard, uninspired moments of growth. Those moments of inspiration are also hinted to in the admonition “choose life.”
All decisions, even good ones, have consequences. The choices we make day in and day out fill our lives with opportunities to add holiness to the world. Because we can never truly know the far reaching outcome of any single choice, we can at least know that there are no mundane decisions. Each dilemma is a chance to move ourselves and the world on this continuum of Life and Good vs. Death and Evil. Invoking both the Power of Every Time and the Power of One Time we have a chance to go into Rosh Hashana armed to reach our fullest potential. In this last Torah reading before the new year we are shown that we have choices to make, and in return, the choices will make us.