Choosing between the good and the easy

The month of Elul, the last of the year, is a time of reflection and change. The word Elul – spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed – is said to be an acronym for the verse “Ani ledodi vedodi li” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” [Song 6:3]), which teaches us that the first step in any process of change has to come from us. Only afterward does God reciprocate. Underlying this call for a person to return to God is the assumption that humans possess free will. The capacity to choose is part of the basic definition of what it means to be a person, which sets us apart from the animals on one hand and the angels on the other. Here is the story that led to one of the foundational insights of my life regarding making choices.

Better for a Person Not to Have Been Created

On December 27, 2002, during a Friday night meal at the Otniel Yeshiva, while students were dancing in the mess room and singing “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 136:1), terrorists stormed the kitchen and murdered four students who were on duty there: Noam Apter, Yehuda Bamberger, Gabriel Hoter, and Zvi Ziemen. The contrast between the words of the song and the horrific attack was excruciating. Yet, at the memorial services, despite their unfathomable pain, the bereaved fathers danced together and sang, “O give thanks unto the Lord.” Where did they draw the strength to continue to thank God?

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were better (noaĥ) for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better (noaĥ) for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better (noaĥ) for man not to have been created than to have been created. (Eiruvin 13b)

The Talmud’s conclusion seems to cast life in a pessimistic light. But Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, in his book Mei HaShiloaĥ (Likutim on Eiruvin 13b), offers a more nuanced reading. He notes that in stating it were “better” for a person not to have been created, the Talmud uses the word “noaĥ,” which connotes comfort or ease, rather than the more standard “tov.” Indeed, the place whence we come and to which we return may be more comfortable, but it is good that we came into the world. This observation gives rise to a fundamental insight about existence: we are given life not so that we can be comfortable, but so that we can do good.

Life presents us with challenges every day, and we are constantly forced to choose. Sometimes we are aware of our choices, but more often than not we are unaware of having reached a crossroads and selected a path. These choices manifest in questions such as whether to assist someone who needs our help, whether to take responsibility for something, and whether to invest and immerse ourselves in the important things in life. Should we change? Generally speaking, we are not forced to choose between good and bad, but rather between what is good and what is comfortable. When we acknowledge that the meaning of our lives lies in doing good, rather than being comfortable, we are more able to raise our awareness of life’s challenges and make the right choices.

We tend to think of people as having a “good inclination” and an “evil inclination.” This dichotomy is dangerous, because it can lead us to conclude that refraining from evil actions is enough. In fact, the inclination that holds us back and prevents us from doing good is not the affinity for evil, but rather for comfort. As a society, too, I think the main weakness we must contend with is the pull exerted by this “comfort inclination.”

There are people who contend in their lifetimes with challenging and extremely painful experiences. They endure such suffering that they feel, in their very bones, that it was better if they had “never been created,” and lose the will to live. But this devastating conclusion does not have to be the end-all. People can pick themselves up and carry on with their lives, impelled by the realization that they must search for the good, for life’s flavor and meaning, thus overcoming the greatest adversity. We must resist the urge to cease being, which is an expression of the “comfort inclination.” In difficult times, we must focus on being active and finding the good, the meaning of life.

A woman whose husband was murdered once told me that in the days after the murder, she was unable to say Modeh Ani, the prayer uttered first thing in the morning, in which we give thanks to God for restoring our souls. She felt that she no longer wanted to live, and was thus incapable of giving thanks for her continued existence. Only later did she understand that the very fact of her survival was a sign that God had chosen her life. That basic insight drove her to search anew for her purpose in the world and to weave meaning into her life.

Some time after the terror attack in the yeshiva, at one of the memorial services, I understood for the first time that the Mei HaShiloaĥ’s idea about what is good and what is comfortable is in fact the story of the attack. When the terrorists opened fire, the door separating the kitchen from the dining room, mere meters from the dancing students, was immediately shut and locked. That delayed the terrorists and gave the other students time to get their bearings and return fire. All four students who were on kitchen duty were slain, but in the last seconds of their lives they locked the door. In saving the lives of their friends, they chose the good over the easy.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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