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Choose! or Not?

The sense to focus on this week is vision. “See that I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse” are the opening words of “Re-eh” meaning vision/ see. These words powerfully appealed to me many years ago, because they validated my own independence to choose in life, and the possibility that choosing life and blessing are within my grasp!
The song, “Liv’racha” by Mah Tovu conveys drama surrounding the choice. To listen:
But how much steering of our own life’s ships do we have considering how powerful outside forces  and circumstances that influence us are? We did not choose to be born into the time, family, circumstances that we were. Are there certain dispositions determined by our genetics and our upbringing that limit our choices? Fairly new in genetics is a third influence, epigenetics:, from fetal existence on, chemicals in our environment determine gene expression for decades to come. Certainly not choices we have made.  Classical physics of the 1800s was convinced that if they were able to plot the location and velocity of each particle, they could predict the future: there would be no choice at all, due to unwavering laws of nature.  This parallels a traditional religious belief that all is pre-known and pre-determined.

But then came Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: that one cannot measure location and velocity, that observation would actually change one or the other.  You can check out uncertainty in this Minute Physics short: , Quantum physics further uncovered a world where particles could pop in and out of existence. Uncertainty itself is part of the fabric of existence.  So if uncertainty is back, choice then again looms large. And we do make choices: career, friends, address, whether to risk tangling with life’s dangers….

A midrash  speaks of choices that go against our nature. In a world gone completely violent there was a single earthling that still walked with God. Commanded to build the ark, Noah did, and soon animals were converging upon this righteous family bringing all manner of headaches in their wake the likes of which had never been encountered before. The lion roared I’m famished and began to crouch and stalk other animals. In true Dr. Doolittle fashion, Noah understood and approached the beast. Sir, if you’re going for a ride on my boat, I must ask you not to hunt the other passengers,  pleaded Noah.  Not hunt?!? But it is my very nature to! cried the lioness.  I am asking you to do it anyway so we can make it through this journey together, explained Noah, and when we make it out alive, I will let it be known to the world how regal your species is, true royalty among the animals. And so the lion and lioness agreed not to hunt for the rest of the journey. Just then Noah’s son Shem came running up to his dad as the whole boat began to thump and shake.. It’s the elephants, Shem spurted out, all out of breath, they’re stomping and dancing to the music. They’re going to capsize us all!  So Noah ran to speak to the elephants, urging them not to dance for the duration of the journey.  Not dance!?! But it is in our very nature to dance! trumpeted the elephants.  But when Noah promised to tell all of the elephants’ wisdom and memory, the elephants promised not to dance for the duration.  And so the monkeys promised not to steal, and the mosquitoes not to bite, and the snakes not to strike, each making a choice for mutual survival, but only for the rest of the journey. (adapted from R. Ed Feinstein) Now, lest you laugh, thinking it is impossible for a beast to make choices to defy it’s nature, it is what the human animal sometimes does, and is perhaps one feature that elevates us, making us creatures in Divine image. Jane Goodall uncovered those war-like, savage elements of chimpanzee nature that so mirror our own worst behavior. She considered despair, until an insight, that unlike chimps, we can choose ways beyond such pieces of our makeup. (Reason for Hope, Jane Goodall)

But still unanswered: can Divine knowledge and free choice still co-exist? For me, an answer in  a beautiful story by Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi. This is an adaptation of a piece of that story.  Reb Chayim returned home from a journey on a river in a row boat with his teacher, Reb Nachum. He explained to his wife Tzillah that in navigating the rapids, pools and falls, Reb Nachum was teaching them the answer to the question which had so troubled them all: how can divine providence and free will co-exist? Now, Tzillah was an artisan, with a brilliant eye and hand for weaving. Come with me to my weaving shack, my husband, and I can answer that question without getting you soaking wet!.  So Reb Chayim followed. There she showed him the Torah cover she had been commissioned to weave, still in the loom. She then took the shuttle with a purple thread and sent it across the loom The warp also had various colors, and it was always important to check these.  She then showed him a similar and completed work in which she’d embroidered beautiful symbols with gold thread.  She explained that the warp was carefully prepared, stretched and threaded to prepare the loom, and once this foundation was laid, it was her choice to select, not only the colors for the weft, but how much energy and care would be put in, and attention to complementing the colors of the warp.  Don’t you see? she exclaimed, the Divine presence is like the warp? It is for us to choose which threads we put into the shuttle with which God weaves the tapestry.  What we add is our love, intention and care.” 

After a long sigh of insight, Reb Chayim composed this hymn for Yom Kippur:

As tapestry is formed, thread by thread, and colof is to texture wed,

Our life is woven on Your loom, we yield to You, save us from doom.



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