The Power to Choose – Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5776/2015

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There’s a line in the classic sci-fi popcorn film Terminator 2: Judgment Day that I’ve always found to be very powerful, and very challenging. John Connor, the leader of the human resistance against the machines, says: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

That each of us is ultimately responsible for the steps we take, the people we become, and the lives we build – that all human beings have complete free will – is one of the very few articles of Jewish faith. Regardless of how environmental factors might influence our behavior – and our environment can indeed impact us greatly, for good or ill – we are nevertheless fully responsible for each and every one of our actions. As Maimonides, the towering figure of medieval Jewish law and philosophy, put it:

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his or hers. Should he or she desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his or hers…There is no one who forces him or her, sentences him or her, or leads him or her towards either of these two paths. Rather, he or she, on his or her own initiative and decision, tends to the path he or she chooses.

From the Torah’s perspective, however, we’ve never been very good at the free will thing. It’s not so much that we so often choose the wrong path, as Maimonides puts it, although we often do. It’s that we so often reject the notion that we get to choose our path in the first place.

We’ve been like this from the very beginning. According to the book of Genesis, God created the first two human beings and placed them in the Garden of Eden, giving them but one commandment: “You are free to eat of every tree in the garden; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

As we all know, Adam and Eve did not follow that command. Those first human beings plucked fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and ate it.

It is that defiant act – the eating of the forbidden fruit – that gets all the publicity. But, if you ask me, it is Adam and Eve’s subsequent behavior that truly ought to command our attention.

After Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they hear God’s footsteps in the garden. Assuming that God is likely to be angry with them for their disobedience, Adam and Eve hide in the bushes. God, of course, discovers the pair, and, sensing their shame, asks them, “Did you eat of the forbidden tree?!”

Here is where it gets interesting: Adam responds by saying, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” So, God turns to Eve and says, “What have you done?!” And Eve, like Adam, responds by saying, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

Who is responsible for Adam and Eve’s behavior? Eve is not being dishonest when she says that the snake persuaded her to eat the fruit. And Adam is not lying when he says that Eve was the one who put the fruit in his hand. Both are correct in the assertion that, since God is the creator of tree, fruit, serpent, and human being, God set up the pieces that cause the whole drama to unfold. Our circumstances, and the actions of others, are all largely beyond our control, and those environmental factors do indeed play a strong role in influencing our behavior.

Strong, but not definitive. For while Adam and Eve, from a certain perspective, are being honest about the nefarious influences of their environment, their responses place all responsibility for their deeds on other actors in the drama. Adam says, “It wasn’t my fault! She made me do it. Blame her. And, not for nothing, God, but since You created her, really, the blame ultimately lies with You! Don’t hold me accountable.” And Eve, for her part, says, “It wasn’t my fault, either! The snake made me do it! Blame him! And, by the way, since You created that snake, really, You are ultimately to blame. I cannot be held responsible.”

Adam and Eve’s excuses are only compelling if you believe that they literally had no choice. This, of course, is not the Bible’s perspective. Neither is it the truth.

Eve, of course, didn’t make Adam eat the fruit. She didn’t tie him down, shove the fruit in his mouth, move his jawbone to grind it into pieces, and then force it down his throat. Adam chose to eat it. Similarly, the serpent didn’t make Eve eat the fruit. That, too, was her choice.

And when they stood under the bright lights, they hid. They deflected. They deflected because of their shame, because no one wants to be seen as a criminal. And they deflected because, when push comes to shove, they didn’t want to change. They wanted to keep eating fruit whenever temptation hit. Change, after all, is painful and exhausting, requiring much effort and endless upkeep. Fruit, on the other hand, is sweet and delicious, and, boy, am I hungry right about now.

You and me, I think we know deep down that we are still very much the children of Adam and Eve. The impulse to deflect responsibility and ascribe blame elsewhere is embedded firmly in our DNA. How many of us are intimately familiar with this scenario: Something goes wrong. Maybe we botched a sale at work, maybe we snapped at our spouse, maybe the restaurant we chose for dinner turned out to be lousy, maybe our email address turned up on the list hackers released from AshleyMadison.com.

The issue comes to light. All eyes turn to you. And you? You turn to the nearest possible person, place, or thing that you can plausibly point to as a responsible party; anyone or anything but you.

“I would have made that sale, but Phil didn’t give me a good-enough rundown on the client!”

“I only yelled at you because you were getting on my nerves with that constant nagging to do the dishes!”

“We only went to that stupid restaurant because Julia decided to become gluten free all of a sudden!”

“I only signed up for that website to catfish Phil after he screwed up that sale!”

These are but a few banal examples, of thousands I could give, since many if not most of us do this all the time. By the way, I struggle with this as much as anyone. Just ask Adira. We blame our parents, spouses, employers, co-workers, employees, teachers, immigrants, the government, pivoting and pointing to contend that other forces control our actions and attitudes, our faults and our unhappiness.

So we may contend, but the argument is usually untrue. Yes, your spouse may have frequently reminded you to do the dishes. But you are the one in control of your own emotions and your own response, not she. Whether or not she badgered you about the dishes, you are responsible for choosing to snap at her. Outside forces might create conditions where certain courses of action become easier or harder for us. However, even in trying circumstances, we retain our ability to freely choose our next steps.

Not only is deflecting responsibility disingenuous, it is also harmful. Since it is usually dishonest, it damages our credibility. How can a person who never accepts responsibility truly be trusted?

Since deflection places responsibility for our own wrongdoings on others, it damages relationships. After all, who wants to be identified as the reason for your problems?

Deflecting responsibility can also be paralyzing. Sometimes, we refrain from taking any action at all in circumstances where, if we fail, we anticipate we won’t be able to deflect responsibility. Our deflection impulse prevents many of us from doing things that are crucial for our future.

And here’s how deflecting responsibility is most harmful: It makes us unable to make the changes necessary to better ourselves or improve our lives. Think about it: if we can succeed in making someone or something responsible for our misdeeds, then why would we ever need to change? By perpetually casting ourselves as victims in someone else’s drama, we make ourselves perpetually blameless, perpetually perfect, perpetually immune to change.

That’s why central to teshuvah, the process of repentance we are called to undertake during the High Holy Days to put our lives on the right track, requires us to identify and acknowledge our faults, flaws, and failures. As Maimonides puts it, “When a person transgresses…whether intentionally or accidentally, in order to repent…he must confess before God…[with] a verbal confession…’ Maimonides adds that anyone who, out of pride, hides his or her transgressions, deflects responsibility, and doesn’t confess cannot achieve complete repentance.

Only when we take full ownership of our deeds, only when we affirm that we, and not other forces, are in control of our decisions and our destinies, can we truly make the changes necessary to live our best lives.

Even in the hardest of circumstances, we can take responsibility. We can refuse to be a victim. We can work to change our destiny. Not only is it possible, it is also the best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

This summer, I got to experience an inspiring real-world example of the truth of this wisdom. As most of you know, I spent a week in July in Israel on an educational mission for progressive rabbis sponsored by AIPAC.

Traveling to Israel with AIPAC offers opportunities to see and do things that most people, even most Israelis, don’t get to experience. During my trip, I shared some of these experiences with you over email, and when I returned, I shared even more during my “Redemption Blossoming” summer sermon series about Israel. If you didn’t get a chance to read or hear those sermons last month, you can check them out on my blog, mikeknopf.com.

Whether or not you heard or read my Israel sermons last month, I saved my favorite experience to share with you for last:

For me and for most of my colleagues, one of the extraordinary highlights of a highlight-filled journey was visiting the new Palestinian city of Rawabi. Rawabi, situated in the West Bank just outside Ramallah, is a planned city, a city designed and constructed from the ground-up. Though its first residents moved in a few weeks after our trip, Rawabi is still unfinished. When it’s completed, the city will house 700 Palestinian families, and has space to ultimately accommodate a population of 40,000. It will include an industrial zone, schools, hospitals, entertainment centers, restaurants, shops, nightclubs, churches, mosques, and a soccer stadium.

Much of the construction is already complete, and we got to see for ourselves the gorgeous limestone apartment complexes, the stunning Roman style amphitheater, and the modern multiplex cinema decorated with frescoes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. It was like watching Short Pump in the final stages of being built, before people began to move in. The whole enterprise is articulated beautifully by the city’s motto, “The Best is Yet to Come.”

It is important to note, though, that this ambitious $1.2 billion project is not being undertaken by any government. Quite the contrary, Rawabi is the creation of one private developer named Bashar Masri. Mr. Masri, whom we had the privilege of meeting during our visit, is a visionary Palestinian entrepreneur who is building Rawabi as a direct response to the profound challenge of statelessness.

Whatever your political opinion, one cannot deny the fact that West Bank Palestinians do not have a sovereign state of their own, and neither are they citizens of Israel. They do not share equal social and political rights with Israelis, they are subject to different laws than Israelis and are prosecuted in a different criminal justice system, and they face restrictions of all kinds that are unfamiliar to Israelis: limits on water and energy, restraints on movement and travel, and, sometimes, imprisonment without due process. Palestinians must pass through military check-points to reach work, or to visit family, or to go to the mall, and only if they have the proper, and difficult-to-obtain, paperwork. Their homes, schools, and businesses are perpetually in the shadow of imposing guard towers, concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and soldiers with guns always pointed in their direction.

True, Palestinians have the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous governing body established as a result of the Oslo Accords, which is responsible for overseeing law enforcement and civilian administration in areas of the West Bank with sizable Palestinian populations. But even the areas governed by the PA are ultimately controlled by what is, to Palestinians, a foreign military over which they have no influence. Though this reality may indeed be justified in the name of Israeli security, an empathetic person can still understand how these conditions make life for the average Palestinian difficult and frustrating, to say the least.

Against this backdrop, the path to building Rawabi has been anything but easy. Mr. Masri not only had to raise the necessary capital, but he also essentially had to create a Fannie Mae-style home mortgage system for the West Bank, because no such thing had previously existed. He had to endure major delays due to the bureaucratic obstacles he encountered, as many Palestinians do, securing necessary permits from the Israeli authorities. He could not deliver homes on schedule due to the Israeli government’s failure to build an adequate access road or to provide water. Mr. Masri also endured obstacles from his own people: the PA promised $150 million for power, water, sewage, schools and roads, but failed to honor its pledge.

Given realities like these, one can easily understand why there is so much cynicism, despair, and nihilism in Palestinian society. What’s the point of doing anything productive if doing it is an uphill battle, and, once it’s done, you can’t be reasonably assured the initiative won’t be demolished by forces over which you have no control? It’s like building a sandcastle by the seashore. You put all this effort into building this beautiful structure, only to have an errant wave wash over it, leaving you with nothing. Build it up again, and another wave could just as easily wash that one away, too. When the future feels out of your control, life can become pointless, and when life becomes pointless, greed becomes good and destruction becomes justifiable.

But here’s the truth: the future is almost never out of our control. Even in the most difficult of conditions, where there is plenty of blame to go around, we yet have the agency to determine how we will live and what we will do.  

That’s why Rawabi is so extraordinary, and so inspiring. Through building a city like Rawabi, Mr. Masri is peacefully, proactively, and dynamically doing his part to build an independent Palestinian state, despite extremely inhibiting conditions. He believes that if a Palestinian state is in the making, then the Palestinian people must take up the responsibility for deciding what kind of state it will be, and then work to make it so. It may take a long time, but it will never happen if the people spend all their time blaming and none of it building.

Even statelessness does not mean powerlessness. Mr. Masri had every opportunity, and every excuse, to do what so many of his countrymen have done given the challenges: to turn to resistance, or to violence, or to greed, or to despair, all the while deflecting responsibility due to the poverty of his circumstances. Instead, he chose to create, to build, to invent, knowing that while he cannot control all of the forces that impact him, he still has the power to choose how to act in relation to those forces.

You and I may not have a billion dollars. You and I may not be building cities, or states. But we are building our lives, and in this sense, our choices are the same that Mr. Masri faced. Our instinct is often to deflect, to excuse our mistakes, our failings, our wrongdoings, or our inaction by laying blame on external forces. But while there are always going to be aspects of our reality beyond our control, we are not marionettes, strings being pulled by forces above and beyond. We are not absent of agency in the unfolding drama of our own lives. Ours is perpetually the choice, either to act like victims of our circumstances, or to adopt the more challenging and more painful, but ultimately more productive, path of making our own fates.

In the face of all the uncertainty, and in the face of all the obstacles, and in the face of all our limitations, we are responsible for writing our own scripts and directing our own stories. No one can be relied upon to do it for us, and no one else is ultimately to blame if we fail to do it for ourselves. Whether by what we do or by what we do not do, only we can determine what our future will look like. You always have choices, and that ability to choose gives you extraordinary power: the power to set your own future, the power to make your own fate.

During the High Holy Day season, we stand in the same place Adam did after he ate the forbidden fruit. God calls out to each of us, “Where are you?” Will we respond, like Adam, with our impulse to deflect? Or will we respond, like Abraham, like Moses, and say, “Hineni. Here I am. Here I am in all my failings, in all my vulnerabilities. Here I am ready to take ownership of where I’ve gone astray. And here I am ready, today, to own my responsibility, in spite of the challenges before me, to build a life of goodness and blessing.” God is looking for you in the garden, calling. How will you answer?

Shanah tovah.

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