Torah from Around the World #326

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By: Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Senior Rabbi of

Temple Sholom of Chicago

, Illinois, USA

We are Defined by Our Choices

“A seeker after truth came to a sage for guidance.

‘Tell me please, wise one, how did you become holy?’

‘Two words.’

‘And what are they, please?’

‘Right choices.’

‘And how does one learn to choose correctly?’

‘One word.’

‘May I know it, please?’


‘How does one grow?’

‘What are those words, pray tell me?’

‘Wrong choices.’

Choices matter, don’t they? Is this not what we try to teach our children? This is not a new idea. The final Torah portion in Leviticus features “the carrot and the stick” to go along with the laws presented in the book. The carrot represents the blessings enumerated, which will be granted if the people of Israel act in fidelity to God. The stick is representative of the curses that will befall them if they do not. Reflective of human nature, the “stick” is much bigger than the “carrot”. The very first word of the portion is “if”. The late Rabbi Sidney Greenberg once pointed out that life is indeed “


”. Our actions have consequences. If we behave a certain way then blessings will follow, and the opposite is also true. He was not suggesting that we always have the consequences of our actions visited upon us. We often get away with bad behavior and are plagued with misfortune even after being good. The point is that there are reverberations for what we do, even if others are the ones directly affected. Perhaps this explains why the word “if” is in the center of a larger word, “life.” Life is



On the other hand, the Hebrew word for life is “


”. In Hebrew it is spelled with two middle letters, a


and another


. These two letters are also a traditional way to write the name of God. In other words, one might say that in Hebrew the word for life is centered not on the word “if” but the notion of God. That is to say that our choices carry consequences, but they also matter to God. From a liberal point of view this is not saying that God rewards and punishes us, rather it comes to teach that God cares about the choices we make. God is not the source of what happens to us; He is the reason why we want to make good choices.

During the last few years I have been one of the editors involved in the process of creating the new High Holy Day prayer book for Reform Jews in the United States and Canada. It is our hope that a version of the book will also be available for liberal Jews throughout the world. In the book,

Mishkan HaNefesh

, we present different views of God. For those who want a traditional view of God, one that rewards and punishes, that theology is there. For those who are repelled by such an approach and prefer a world where we are not judged by a supernatural figure but still take responsibility for what we do, this theology of human consequences is also present. In other words, we have created a book that presents various views of God and human partnership. For example, in addition to the litany of sins we also have lists of things we have done well. Much of Yom Kippur afternoon is devoted to guiding us into good habits as opposed to condemning us for our bad ones.

No matter what view we have of God it is hoped that all of us will reflect upon the choices we make, knowing that there will be consequences and that most of us want to believe in a Higher Power who cares about the decisions we make. To live with faith does not mean having all the answers. It does imply that we are paying attention and asking the right questions.

E. B. White, the well-regarded author and essayist of the twentieth century, was fond of saying, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Therein lies the choice before us every day: will we choose for ourselves or for others? Will we be aware of the consequences of our choices? And do we believe in a Deity who cares about the choices we make? Ever since Abraham in Genesis, the Jewish people believe that these questions matter the most. To live by these questions is to be in sync with the overall message of Jewish tradition. IF only we lived each day more aware of the significance of our task. That is the biggest “if” to ponder.

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