David Walk

Pros and Cons

Yul Brynner, the famous actor from the ’50s and ’60s, had some great parts, with some even greater lines. We all remember his Pharaoh Ramses declaring:  So let it be written; so let it be done! But my favorite was his King of Siam attesting: This is a wonderment! Well, this week’s Torah reading presents us with a wonderment, something we know to be true but can’t quite fathom how or why.

Our parsha begins:

I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse, the blessing if you obey the commands of the Eternal your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Eternal your God (Devarim 11:26-28).

Clearly, Moshe, and by extension God and the Torah, believe that we Homo Sapiens have the power to decide our actions for good or for bad. This idea is stated clearly by Maimonides in his great compendium of Jewish Law:

Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva, 5:1).

This ability or gift, we believe is unique to humankind. Even the celestial beings are denied free choice because they have no YETZER HARA (evil inclination). But our great teacher Moshe Rabbeinu clearly states this truth both here and later in Devarim, his valedictory address (chapter 30, verses 25-30). We must believe that this choice and power is in our hands. It is, indeed, our free will choice to be good or bad.

The Midrash in the Sifri offers a famous MASHAL (parable):

A man is sitting at the crossroads, with two paths stretching before him, one, whose beginning is level and whose end is thorns, and one whose beginning is thorns and whose end is level. He informs the passersby: This path whose beginning you see to be level — for two or three steps you will walk on level ground, and, in the end, on thorns. And this path whose beginning you see to be thorny — for two or three steps you will walk in thorns, and in the end you will walk on level ground. Thus did Moshe speak to Yisrael: You see the wicked prospering — For two or three days they will prosper in this world, and in the end, they will be cast away, as it is written (Proverbs 24:20) “For there is no (good) end for the wicked one,”…They see the righteous suffering in this world. Their end is to rejoice, (Devarim 8:16). And it is written (Koheleth 7:8) “Better the end of a thing than its beginning.”…

In other words, the unvarnished, simplistic view of this world makes it appear that the bad guys have a better go of it than the good guys. Moshe Rabbeinu informs us that viewpoint is short sighted and ultimately wrong. But we need a trustworthy guide to find the right route. Rebbe Nachman added to the MASHAL by informing us that we are always at a crossroads. Our next step is the crucial one for our life and ultimate fate. 

Dr. Tzipora Lifshitz added that

The derasha does not inform the reader whether or not the two paths lead to the same place. So too the guide, the figure of Moshe, relates not at all to the end point. Does the difference between the two paths lie in the destination, or in the different experiences and tests that the traveler will have to undergo on each path?’

Our choices are critical to the nature of the life we live. So, we must be very careful all the time to make correct choices. This brings me to the ‘wonderment’. The seemingly unanswerable question is asked by none other than one of the great guides for this generation, Rav Dr. Avraham Twerski OB”M:

We have both the intelligence to make wise decisions and the ability to do so. Yet, we often see people making unwise decisions that are to their own detriment, and they fail to use these God-given strengths in their own favor. This thought occurs to me when I see intelligent and even scholarly people smoking cigarettes, knowingly poisoning themselves. 

How can this be? Very intelligent people make terrible life choices. Shouldn’t knowledge be coercive? Well, obviously not. 

Rabbi Twerski suggests:

The reason for this discrepancy is that one’s judgment is distorted by what one would like to believe. This is true of every unwise decision. Smoking is just one stark example. We are constantly under the influence of biases that impair our judgment. The blind person cannot make himself sighted, but we do have the ability to overcome the blindness of our biases. 

Okay, even very smart people have blind spots. I guess it answers the conundrum, but I don’t find it very satisfying.   

How about this: these kinds of decisions don’t come from our brains. We know right and wrong because of the ‘little gray cells’ in our brains, but we choose what to do much more viscerally, rather than cognitively. These decisions come from our gut or KISHKES. It’s like the Mishneh:

Who is the GIBOR (successful warrior, hero)? One who defeats their inclination to bad behavior (Pirkei Avot, 4:1).

It’s a war out there. Making the correct ethical and moral decisions isn’t easy, because the forces of the dark side are so prevalent and successful. That road looks so enticing. The people on that smooth, paved path look so happy and prosperous. It takes great intestinal fortitude to withstand that temptation of following the path of least resistance, the easy way.

It is a ‘wonderment’ to see so many really smart people on that route, but I think we can see a reason for it. Knowing isn’t always enough. Pluck, courage, fortitude and perseverance are required.

In my humble opinion, we Jews have enough scholars, intellectuals, professors, even geniuses.  We need more GIBORIM, like Moshe Rabbeinu, who taught us to be strong as well as smart.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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