William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Crowd-sourcing the urge to improve

How can we tell when a sin that we have committed has been pardoned?  By the fact that we no longer commit that sin.  With such Hasidic wisdom we now enter the forty day season which will culminate with Yom Kippur.

Again and again, Judaism asserts: ‘You are free’.  Habits typically suggest otherwise.  The gravitational pull of the familiar alongside the determinisms of our genes, our surroundings, and our upbringings, bring a forceful counter-claim: ‘It is what it is’.

Imagine yourself standing at a crossroads.  You can take a step down path A or path B.  Initially it is an even choice.  Each path is as likely as the other.  Take a cigarette or decline it.  But once you’ve taken a step down path B, the next time you face that decision, it doesn’t feel as even as it first was.  It’s easier to continue down path B than to retrace your step back up path B to the crossroad where path A is available.  Before long, teaches Rabbi Harold Kushner, you’ve traveled so far down path B, that path A feels remote if not impossible.  Chemical addiction may physiologically prove this to be so.

How then can free will still abide? The timely arrival of this week’s Torah portion offers an answer.  Free choice pulsates throughout it – remarkably, even for God.  The location suitable for offerings is named the chosen place (hamakom asher yivchar) throughout this particular portion which is always learned a month prior to Rosh Hashanah.  The major challenge to preserving free choice is surrounding influences.  God worries about bad influences like pagan altars and false prophets.  So social goodnesses like Tithing (Deut.14:22-29) are introduced to crowd-source generosity, instilling good influences

Summer began as it typically does with life-advice of Commencement Addresses.  It now concludes with Labor Day weekend’s coinciding this year with the arrival of the New Month of Elul.  Convincing ourselves of our free will is immensely difficult.  How much more is striving to do so on our own.  Gratefully, crowd-sourcing the urge to improve is Elul’s specialty.  May it prove to be a month suffused with freedom’s potential.

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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