Life is full of hard decisions. Or so we tell our kids. Upon reflection though, as this horrible, amazing school year draws to a close, I’m not sure that truism applies as often as we say it.
Last weekend my family and I did something we have not not done in a year and a half: we went to the movies. The cinema experience holds varying degrees of meaning for different people, but I have successfully passed on to my children my love of and reverence for the sounds, sights (and smells) of seeing the movies on the big screen. We saw In the Heights, and between the feeling of a return to normal and the rollercoaster of emotions this film and its music evoked, we shared an overwhelming emotional moment. Many of the film’s characters grapple with life-altering choices: to stay in college, leave their neighborhood, or even leave the country. It’s their relationships with others that help them navigate these difficult decisions. But when is a decision a no-brainer?
In this week’s parasha of Chukkat, twice the people of Israel asked permission from foreign nations, Edom and Emor, if they could pass through their lands as shortcuts on their way to the land of Israel. They promise not to touch any of the produce or even drink the water of those lands. Twice, though, the people of Israel are not only denied entry, but are told by both Sichon, the King of Emor, and by the unnamed king of Edom that they will be attacked if they even try to enter. The two kings even gather their armies on the borders as a show of force. Why this violent, confrontational decision? Rashi offers that Sichon had collected protection money from the surrounding nations; to allow the people of Israel passage would make Emor look inconsistent and weak. To allow a foreign entity to pass through was simply not a wise choice politically or militarily.
In his major work of mussar, Michtav me-Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler famously explains that free will differs from person to person. We each have psychological and spiritual lines that we won’t cross: if the laws of kashrut are so ingrained in me that I wait several hours after eating meat, I will not be tempted by Ben and Jerry’s Tonight Dough. If, however, I am “dairy,” I may feel the temptation — and be unable to resist. (Unsurprisingly, Rav Dessler uses a different metaphor entirely.) For Edom and Emor, there was no choice, no moral conflict: the answer was no. A person’s nekudat bechira, his or her “decision point,” explains Rabbi Dessler, is where there’s genuine moral or psychological conflict: does Nina Rosario of In the Heights drop out of Stanford? Do I eat that donut? Do I smoke that cigarette? (That last example is Rav Dessler’s.) The decision point is different for each of us; is dependent on our own moral compass; and — I would add — is often influenced by our relationships with those around us.
I remarked to our teachers this week at school as we ended the teaching year that for all of them, last summer’s decision of whether to return to the classroom was not at all their bechira point. They did not waver like Nina Rosario; like the kings of Edom and Emor, there was no vacillation whatsoever. Of course we’re going to teach those kids, be there for them, give them structure, support, knowledge and skills, they said to themselves. When by some accounts only 34% of students in America received in-person learning this year, our teachers’ dedication and commitment is nothing short of remarkable.
For those who have similarly benefitted from such educators this year, a great use of five minutes this week is to ask your kids to list some highlights of their year and then compose a short note to those teachers, thanking them for all they’ve done and acknowledging their decision and their commitment. It’s a no-brainer.