Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

A Life of Choices

The Rambam's Yad Hachazokah is classic and timeless. Written beautifully with clarity and depth, he presents the laws and principles of the Torah for all forthcoming generations. His seforim are a foundation of our lives and studies. As we go through Elul and approach the Yomim Noraim, engaging in teshuvah, it stands to reason that one of the guides illuminating our path to help us mend our ways should be Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam.

After delineating the obligation and path of teshuvah over several chapters, the Rambam seems to digress in perek 5. He writes in halachah 1, “Permission is granted to every person. If he wishes to turn himself to the correct path and be a righteous person, he can do so. However, if a person wishes to act improperly and be wicked, he can do so as well… Man is the only creature that differentiates between good and bad and has the ability to do whatever he pleases, good or bad…”

One immediately senses that the Rambam is veering from his standard path of precision in halachah, addressing what appears to be a theological issue and not one related to the act of teshuvah. We wonder what the point is of engaging in this discussion in his halachic compendium.

In halachah 2, he continues, “Let it not enter your mind that unwise gentiles and most unwise Jews say that Hashem decrees upon a person at birth whether he will be righteous or wicked. It is not so. Every person can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu or as wicked as Yerovom. He can be intelligent or dim, compassionate or cruel… Nobody can force him or decree upon him or drag him to either path, for it is a person’s own choice which way to go.”

Then he writes, “Therefore, if a person sins, he has hurt himself, and it is proper that he cry and bemoan what he has done to his soul… Because of our own volition, we have done these bad acts. We should do teshuvah and leave our sins behind, for it is up to us.”

The Rambam then writes in halachah 3, “This concept is fundamental, a pillar upon which the totality of Torah and mitzvos rest… The choice (between blessing and curse) is in the hands of man. A person may follow his desires to do good or bad… Hashem doesn’t force or decree that people do good or bad; everything is left to man’s free choice.”

In halachah 4, he continues, “If Hashem were to decree that an individual be righteous or wicked, or that he would be born with a characteristic that would draw him to a certain way of conduct, attitude or deed – as fools who believe in astrology claim – then how could Hashem command us, through His nevi’im, to do specific actions and desist from others… if it has already been decreed on man that he behave in a particular fashion?

“What would be the relevance of the entire Torah? Where is the sense of justice that would administer punishment and reward? …Don’t wonder how it can be that man has free will to act as he pleases, if nothing can happen in the universe without the permission and will of the Creator? Even though whatever we do is in accord with Hashem’s will, we alone are responsible for our own actions… Just as the Master of the Universe desired that fire and wind rise upwards, while elements of water and earth flow downward… that each creation has its specific nature which He created for it… so too, He wishes for man to have free choice and to be responsible for his actions without being compelled to act in any specific way… Therefore, man is judged according to his behavior.”

And finally, in halachah 5, he writes, “Because Hakadosh Boruch Hu is already aware of what will happen even before it occurs… if Hashem knows that man will be righteous, it will then be impossible for man to be wicked. For if it were possible for man to defy what Hashem knows, then it would mean that His knowledge is lacking…

“Know that this area is ‘longer than the earth and wider than the sea,’ with deep and fundamental principles and lofty concepts dependent upon it… Human knowledge cannot grasp this concept in its entirety, for just as it is beyond the potential of man to comprehend and conceive the essential nature of the Creator…so, too, it is beyond man’s capacity to comprehend and conceive Hashem’s knowledge.”

That being said, the Rambam personally addresses the reader. As you read his words, you can imagine the learned teacher of every observant Jew lovingly reaching out through the ages. With much compassion, we imagine the Rambam’s smile as he says, “Aval tzorich atah leida ulehovin badovor hazeh she’ani omeir.” He begs us, “Please know and understand deeply what I am saying.”

After explaining the difficulty in properly understanding the concepts of yediah and bechirah, the Rambam concludes, “This is certain: Man’s actions are in his own hands, and the Holy One, blessed be He, does not lead him in a specific direction.”

And once more, he reaches out to us and tells us, “Know this, without any doubt, that what a person does is totally up to him and Hashem does not pull or push him in any direction, nor does He dictate to him to do this and not to do that.” And then he says something peculiar: “This fact is not verified only through religious tracts, but is proven without a doubt from divrei chochmah.”

As I studied these words, I wondered why the Rambam goes to such great lengths to explain to us and convince us of the principles of bechirah. Why is it so important? And why is it so basic to hilchos teshuvah to know that it is a person’s choice what type of individual to be? Why is that so integral to performing teshuvah?

In fact, the Raavad (ibid., halachah 5) comments that he doesn’t understand why the Rambam goes into a lengthy discussion of these topics. In fact, he states that the Rambam opened up a conversation and did not sustain it.

Finally, why does the Rambam conclude by stating that this is a proven fact and has nothing to do with religion?

Let us try to understand the connection between teshuvah and bechirah and suggest what the Rambam’s message might be.

In our generation, the age of entitlement and blame, the most common reaction and defense when a person does something wrong is to look for someone upon whom to place the blame. Everyone claims to be a victim of some type or another. People don’t blame themselves for acting improperly; that would necessitate owning up to their actions and doing something about it. Instead, people – and society at large – search for outside factors upon which to blame improper behavior. If a person fails, he says that it is because his parents were too authoritarian or too permissive. His mother showed too much love; his father didn’t show enough. They blame the behavior on the school – it was too big, too small, too intimidating, too free.

A person’s behavior is blamed on the family he was born into. They were poor; what do you expect? They were rich; he was spoiled. Or on the neighbors. They were unruly, or domineering, or didn’t ever give him a turn in their games.

The Gemara in Maseches Avodah Zarah (17a) tells the story of Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya. A most immoral person, he was inspired to do teshuvah.

Overcome with shame and regret for his actions, he fled for the hills, determined to do teshuvah. He beseeched the mountains and hills to plead his case with Hashem. They refused to intercede on his behalf, telling him that he had to argue his case himself. He turned to the heavens and earth to intercede, but they also turned him down. He looked to the sun and moon for help, but was similarly rejected.

Finally, he collapsed, his head in his hands, crying from the depths of his being. Eventually, he stood up and proclaimed, “Ein hadovor talui elah bi. It all depends on me. It’s my responsibility.”

Finally accepting that what he had done was his own responsibility and no one but he could make it right, he collapsed in tears and died. As his soul left him, a bas kol announced that Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya’s teshuvah was accepted and he was destined for Olam Haba.  

Darshonim cite that Gemara as a portrayal of the teshuvah process a person must undergo. They explain that when the Gemara states that Rabi Elozor ben Dordaya turned to the “horim,” the mountains, and asked them to pray for him, this is to be understood allegorically. The darshonim would say, “Al tikri horim, ela hoyrim.” He wasn’t referring to the mountains and asking them to pray for him. He was blaming his situation on his parents. Perhaps they had spoiled him or deprived him or hadn’t given him enough love, in contemporary parlance. He tried blaming them, but it didn’t work. So he searched for others to blame.

When the Gemara says that he reached out to heaven and earth, it represents his attempt to blame the environment – his schools, teachers and friends. He tried blaming them. They influenced me. Everyone else was also doing it. They picked on me. The teachers were lousy. It’s their fault.

That tact also didn’t absolve him of responsibility for his sins.

So he tried blaming the sun and moon, meaning his financial situation. He was too rich. Mah yaaseh haben shelo yecheta? He was too poor. What can be expected of him?

When that also didn’t accomplish anything, he tried blaming the mazalos for his conduct. This is perhaps a hint to the foolish belief cited by the Rambam that astrology influences man’s behavior. Rabi Elozor tried arguing that it wasn’t his fault that he was such an immoral person, for this was his nature; the weakness was inborn.

The Heavenly Court rejected this defense as well.

Finally, with all his excuses refuted, Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya concluded that “Ein hadovor talui elah bi.” What he did with his life was his fault, not anyone else’s. He became consumed by that thought and overwhelmed by the weight of the inherent responsibility he had now perceived for the first time. Broken by that realization, he died performing teshuvah.

The Nesivos Shalom observes that Chazal added the appellation of rebbi to his name, because through his act and understanding, Rabi Elozor ben Durdaya became a teacher to all shovim, returnees, demonstrating the attitude and mindset that lead people to take responsibility for their actions and experience genuine change.

When he comprehended the Rambam’s teaching about bechirah, he was able to enter the realm of teshuvah.

What a person makes of his life is his own choice. Some have it easier and others have it harder. Irrespective of a person’s background or situation, Hashem has granted him the ability to overcome it all and become as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, if he so chooses.

However, as long as a person feels comfortable blaming his present on his past and on things beyond his control, he will not engage in teshuvah and all of hilchos teshuvah will be theoretical to him.

The Rambam expends much effort in this perek in addressing people with that mindset. He says to them, “What you are and what you make of your life is your own choice. No one can force you to be evil. No one can force you to sin. If you sin, it is because you let your yeitzer hora get the better of you. There are many people who had those same experiences as you, yet they are righteous, outstanding individuals. They triumphed over their circumstances, and so can you.”

There are many poor people who rose from their situation and became great talmidei chachomim. In fact, Chazal say, “Hizharu bivnei aniyim ki meihem teitzei Torah.” Poverty is not an excuse for a life of crime, just as wealthy children are not guaranteed a blessed life. Every person can become great or small, good or bad.

We have to shake our attitude of entitlement or the belief that we are victims of circumstances, and instead realize just how blessed we are, with everything in place for us to soar.

Therefore, the Rambam says that this is not a religious concept. A person who has strayed from the path may not be prepared to hear religious teachings. He has closed his mind to anything related to Yiddishkeit. If you try to prove that what he makes of his life is his own challenge and responsibility, independent of outside factors, he will refuse to listen. He is done with religion and preachers.

Thus, the Rambam says that this is a fact of life and cannot be argued. What a person makes of his life is not preordained, but is wholly dependent upon the choices he makes and the way he deals with challenges. Man cannot blame his situation on anyone but himself. Man is never so far gone to declare that he cannot return to the path of the good and just. “It’s a fact, it’s up to you. You must own up to it. Man up and repent.”

Every person is unique. Every person has different abilities and challenges. Every person has a distinctive mission. He has been gifted with the ability to realize that mission and to succeed in living a happy and blessed life, but he has to accept his role, believe in himself, and withstand the challenges life throws his way. Should he stray and falter, he can always get back on track.

The Yomim Noraim are a period for us to conduct an honest assessment of how we are doing. Understanding bechirah leads us to teshuvah and being included in the Sefer Hachaim. Those who live lives of Torah and mitzvos are the most alive beings in creation.

Rav Yisroel Isser of Ponovezh was a hidden tzaddik who worked as a peddler, traveling from town to town selling his wares. Recently, his sefer Menuchah Ukedushah was reprinted. Rav Yisroel Isser was a prime student of Rav Chaim Volozhiner and himself a rebbi to many talmidim, as well as a primary source of teachings and stories from and about the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim. Among his talmidim was the famed Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, known as the Leshem because of the Kabbalistic work with that title that he authored.

A story that Rav Aryeh Levin heard from the Leshem is recounted in the introduction to the new edition of the sefer Menuchah Ukedushah.

One year, Rav Yisroel Isser found himself in a tiny village on Motzoei Shabbos of Selichos. Rav Yisroel Isser took a Selichos in hand and began to recite it. As the chazzan called out the opening words of the posuk, “Lecha Hashem hatzedakah velonu boshes haponim,” he was so overcome by emotion as the power and truth of the message struck him that he was unable to raise his head.

He was shaken by the fact that we are ever-blessed with Hashem’s kindness and have embarrassingly little to show for all the opportunities in our lives.

For the rest of his life, Rav Yisroel Isser would pray for the opportunity to recapture the tremendous emotion of that year, to feel what he had felt in that tiny village.

The Leshem, master of hidden and revealed Torah, retold this story with great feeling, as it is central to the avodah of these days. During this period, we are tasked with a dual avodah: appreciating what we have, so that we may be blessed in the future, and also realizing the missed opportunities and doing teshuvah.

One Shabbos, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach and his young son, Shlomo Zalman, walked from the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim to Meah Shearim to participate in a Kiddush. As the two were walking, something caught Rav Chaim Leib’s attention. To his astonishment, he saw a man dressed in pajamas standing on his porch smoking a cigarette.

Rav Chaim Leib turned to his son and said to him in Yiddish, “Close your eyes. Don’t look at that sheigetz.”

The sheigetz spoke Yiddish and overheard the conversation. He became very upset and called down to Rav Auerbach in Yiddish, “Are you calling me a sheigetz? How can you call me a sheigetz when I personally had a discussion with Hakadosh Boruch Hu?”

He continued: “You heard correctly. I asked Hashem a question and He answered me. I’m no sheigetz.”

He put down his cigarette and shared his story.

“I was born in Russia to Jewish parents. My father died when I was very young. I grew up with goyim, went to school with them, and was eventually drafted into the Russian army. One night, we were fiercely attacked. Everyone around me was killed. I looked out at the battlefield and was shaking with fear. I was the only survivor. I began to wonder why I was chosen to live.

“I crawled into a foxhole and began to talk to Hashem. I said, ‘I don’t know if You exist. I was orphaned as a young child. I grew up with goyim. I was never in a shul. I don’t know anything. But if You are really out there, please show me a sign. I will stick my hand out of the bunker, and if a bomb or bullet comes and shoots off one of my fingers, I will know that You exist. I will begin going to shul, studying your Torah, and living the life of a proper Jew.’

“And that is what happened. I stuck up my hand, a bullet whizzed by, and it blew off my finger.” He held up his hand and said, “Take a look. You’ll see that I am missing a finger.”

“Do you hear what I’m telling you? How do you call me a sheigetz? I am a Yid who Hashem has spoken to.”

After asking him mechilah, Rav Chaim Leib posed to the man the obvious question: “So tell me, how is it that you are smoking on your porch on Shabbos in Yerushalayim ihr hakodesh? What happened to you that you ended up like this?”

“I’ll tell you,” the man answered. “For months, I looked for a shul and couldn’t find one. Then the army discharged me and I went to live with my mother. I felt bad for her and stayed with her. There was no shul in her town. And so it was, until I forgot about fulfilling my vow.”

Rav Shlomo Zalman would repeat the story and say that he remembered it his whole life. He would add that in life, there are times of great inspiration, and when they come, we must immediately act upon them. “That man must have had a great neshomah for such a story to happen to him. Had he immediately run to a shul to daven and learn, he would have become a great man,” Rav Shlomo Zalman said.

Instead, the man procrastinated and kept finding excuses not to do teshuvah. Every day, he pushed it off to the next, until the inspiration to improve was totally gone and forgotten.

We must ensure that we are not like that man, chas veshalom. During this period, when Hashem is close to us and awaits our return, we must rid ourselves of the common excuses and accept that what we have become was totally up to us. Even if we have sinned, even if we have fallen in with a bad group, even if until now things have not gone well for us, we should not give up on ourselves and view ourselves as doomed. We each have the ability to change at any time, especially at this time of year.

Let us open our eyes and see how endless the possibilities are and how much tzedakah Hashem has bestowed upon us. How many of us took up the suggestion of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach offered here a few weeks ago to jot down daily the kindnesses Hashem has granted us?

Were we to ponder Hashem’s goodness to us on a regular basis, we would become better Yidden and better people, as we would feel the boshes ponim, the humility, that will lead us to correct our ways, choose life and take control of our destiny.

May we all merit finding the wisdom, strength and resolve to choose wisely and receive Divine favor to be granted a year of blessed life.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

Ah gut gebentcht yohr.



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