TWO ROADS DIVERGED
Rabbi David Walk
Okay, gentle reader, you know that I'm stealing from Robert Frost. I could have plagiarized Yogi and began with, 'If you come to a fork in the road, pick it up!' But I thought I'd display a bit more class. In any case, the metaphor of a crossroads is a powerful one. And I think that it is especially poignant on Yom Kippur. We all want a successful Yom Kippur, but what exactly does an effective Yom Kippur look like? I could give some obvious answers, like spiritual prayer, tearful confession or saying every word (fat chance of that one). However, this year, I'd like to emphasize another approach. Let's make Yom Kippur less about the past and more about the future. All those confessions, let's view them as rejected possibilities for next year. We should challenge ourselves to view any point in time as a potential crucial turning point in my life. I'd like to make my motto for this year a quote from Avraham Joshua Heschel: In every moment something sacred is at stake.
Yom Kippur is, to a great extent, an exercise in noticing that life, indeed, is eternally presenting us with two major options. Let's call this 'The 2 Goat Scenario'. The central service of Yom Kippur in our Holy Temple was the selecting of the two identical goats, one of which was offered as a sacrifice on the altar and the other was sent out to the cruel and uncharted wilderness to be unceremoniously hurled from a cliff. Everyone's ultimate disposition is either within the confines of our consecrated people and tradition, or out there somewhere in terra incognito. We are strongly recommending the inside our national destiny option, more on why later. How do we accomplish this goal?
This question is not unique to Judaism. And I'd like to begin the discussion with a semi-outside source. One of today's major advocates for healthy choices is Gretchen Rubin. She's written a number of books, has appeared in lot of Youtubes and has an informative blog. In her book Better than Before, she wrote about her appreciation of New Year resolutions. More importantly she wrote about how to keep them. First of all, make sure that the choices outlined in the resolution are specific. Don't resolve to be 'good'. How do you check that one? She suggests instead of a resolution to 'eat healthfully' choose something concrete like 'stop eating fast food' or 'eat breakfast'. Maybe resolve to say Shema before sleep, rather than generally declaring that I want to daven more. Step two, check your progress. Keep some sort of chart to track your resolve at your resolution. This is in keeping with Benjamin Franklin and in his wake Reb Yisroel Salanter. And one more step in this process, have an outside monitor. Confide in a friend or mate, that will strengthen your resolve, or, better yet, have a partner in your resolution endeavor.
Here's another extremely important factor, don't allow slips to derail the process. This brings us to the famous aphorism made famous by Voltaire (whom we generally don't like): Perfect is the enemy of good (or, in the original, le mieux est l'ennemi du bien). It's the yetzer hara (evil inclination) telling you give up the endeavor if you mess up once. As we read last Shabbat, only God is perfect, ha'tzur tamim (Deuteronomy 32:4). For us, when the term tamim is used we translate it as 'innocent', not perfect. As psychologist Alex Lickerman said, we must learn 'how to leverage our desire for perfection to impel us toward quality without becoming trapped in a miasma of permanent dissatisfaction with everything we create.' In a slightly different area, that famous expert on beauty, Marylin Monroe, once said, 'Imperfection is beauty.'
This obsession with choosing is a major theme in the book of Deuteronomy. Starting in chapter eleven we are told, 'Pay attention to the fact that I set before you everyday a blessing and a curse (verse 26, Common English Bible translation).' And just two weeks ago this concept stood center stage when Moshe told our ancestors, Today I ask heaven and earth to be witnesses. I am offering you life or death, blessings or curses. Now, choose life! Then you and your children may live (30:26). Whoa! Here's a new ingredient. The choice that I make doesn't just affect me, but my progeny after me. In other words, when I choose a path it's ripples play out infinitely. The future of our people depends on the choices we make today.
But here's the rub. There are two dangers. One became popular during the Obama era, and is called false choices (also called black and white thinking). This phenomenon sets up choices as either/or decisions which falsely eliminates moderate options; example, I must choose between altruism and self-interest. No, you don't. The two can mesh. And, here's the other hazard: owning our choices. Often, we'll say. 'Oh, I don't have time to … (fill in the blank with learn, play with my kids, spend time with spouse).' Here's what we've done. We've claimed that the issue is out of our hands, because there aren't enough hours in the day. That's not true. We're really saying that the activity is not a priority. We always make time for the things which are important enough to us. For any progress in our effort to improve, we must acknowledge that what we, and, yes, who we are is a result of the choices we make.
When we stand before God on Yom Kippur, it's critical that we envision the crossroads. We must resolve to choose wisely between all the options laid out in our lives. Choose sincerity, commitment, life. If we don't feel the urgency on Yom Kippur, will we ever?