Choice and consequences

“I didn’t choose where or when to be born, so how much of my life is predetermined and how much of it results from my choices?”  A candidate for conversion and I recently discussed the scope of free will. “I didn’t decide who my parents were, my genetic makeup, or the biopsy results.  So much of life seems out of our hands.”  “All true” I replied, “but you are still free, and your response to all of these realities is in your hands.”

This is Judaism’s most commanding idea.  Freedom’s responsibilities abide.  Our founding story, celebrated at the Seder every Spring, is told on the Festival of our Freedom.  Six months later we personalize that freedom with the High Holy Day agency known as repentance.

The Bible begins with stories of choice and its consequences.  Fruit-eating in the Garden of Eden is a choice whose consequence becomes human mortality.  God’s choice to pay attention to Abel’s offering ahead of Cain’s, generates surprising jealousy (lama chara lach) (Gen. 4:6).  And the consequence of Cain’s decision to murder his brother is punitive wandering.

But too many decisions in today’s world appear to be occurring consequence-free.  Troubling actions taken by leaders seem to generate alarming aftereffects.  The vulnerable are made unsafe.  The injured are insulted.  And would-be dignitaries freely displace vision with division.

The Torah opens and closes emphasizing free choice and its responsibilities. Some claim that choice is an illusion.  Others give it away with weak will-power.

May each of us do our share to vindicate Judaism’s urge to keep us accountably free in the New Year 5779.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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