William Hamilton

You never know

“Watch this” my dear friend Charles said as we looked down behind Home Plate in between innings. Military veterans are often applauded at ball games these days. It’s a good thing, a welcome relief from all the hissing and hollering out there. This Worchester weeknight was particularly tender. 

A 100-year-old Vet from World War II stood alongside his three sons. The 8,000 in attendance all rose to sustain an extended applause. The Umpires and both Teams vigorously joined in. It lasted quite a while. Eyes teared. When we finally sat down, Charles offered a touching reflection.

“If you’d have asked that gentleman, when he was struggling or going through a painful period in his life, say when he was in his 80s, if he ever thought he’d receive a standing ovation from thousands of people when he was 100, would he have ever imagined it?” Indeed, we never know. And it’s not just about longevity. This month’s bleak moments can be followed by next month’s glowing ones.

The primary portion of Torah this week accentuates God’s choice. Even though chosen-time, like Shabbat, and a choosing-People, like Israel, are familiar ideas, this is the first time God’s choosing is so explicit. Fourteen times we meet the term for ‘the chosen place’ (ha-makom asher yivchar) toward which we pilgrim and pray. The closing chapters of the Torah’s final book will build upon this idea of free choice, soon enough urging us to ‘choose life’ (Deut. 30:19). Free will and the freedom to choose is so essential to Judaism’s approach to life. Our founding story at the Seder occurs on a holiday known as Festival of Freedom, and our Highest Holy Days invite a personal freedom to repent and grow.

Here’s the question. Given how important free choice is to Judaism, why does the Torah wait so long to teach it? Why wait until the closing chapters of its last book to impart something so precious? 

Perhaps it’s to teach us that it’s never too late to exercise it. If you’re like me, you find it easy to doubt your capacity to change. Habits harden. They calcify. The struggle to pivot away from a practice can feel herculean. After all, so much about life is out of your hands. You didn’t pick your genes, your parents, or where or when you were born. 

I believe God knows how easy it is for us to doubt our capacity to choose and change. So their availability comes so late in the Torah in order that we never stop believing in ourselves. 

This Shabbat is the second anniversary of my dear dad’s passing. Bert Hamilton, of blessed memory, was a World War II Veteran. His capacity for change, late in life, into his 90s — particularly in the four years following the passing of his beloved wife, our dear mother of blessed memory, Betty Hamilton — serves as the truest inspiration for this never-too-late lesson I will ever know.

Your capacity to change is ever-present. It doesn’t merely get the last word. It gets the next one. 

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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