“What if Hitler had not declared war on America?” is a question that teaches us nothing useful. But, “What if I had chosen a different path then? What if I choose a different one now?” becomes an essential ingredient of any well-examined life.
It is the ability to work with the theoretical “What If?” that make us capable of changing ourselves, of growing beyond our nature and nurture, and become truly capable of exercising Free Will. And people who exercise their Free Will are, in their way, the most powerful force in the universe. We are not hotter than the sun, or exert more gravitational force than planets – our power lies in something much more elusive, something that might even be called magical: coupled with our Free Will, we are endowed with the power of spiritual creation.
That may sound silly, but consider this: it is people who name everything else. Stars may burn brightly, but we observe them, not the other way around. Our words can make someone beautiful or ugly, smart or stupid. Nothing more substantial than the thoughts in our heads, our beliefs, can bring the world to war or peace, slavery or freedom. G-d has made us His agents in this world, and endowed us with enormous power.
This is not a world in which we can paint by numbers. Life is messy and sticky. In any situation, we make decisions based on inadequate and subjective information, and there is very often no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. There are, instead, decision points that open up a range of possible outcomes, outcomes that cannot be accurately predicted by man or machine. This is the real world of people, as unpredictable and, well, human, as we are.
So G-d makes the world, and he puts humans on it. Nature has its range of rules, and its complexities and homeostatic systems, but there is nothing within Nature that is like man: unlike anything else we can observe, man is capable of being the perfect agent of chaos.
Not all people are capable of unpredictability. Indeed, most people are not unpredictable at all. Most people, thanks to nature and nurture and culture, can be predicted almost as if they were groups of animals. Studied under a zoological lens, scientists are able to show the statistical probabilities for the life of a beggar in India or a farmer in China. The more pagan the society, the more predicable people are. Without familiarity with how to harness and manipulate the “What If?”, people effectively lack Free Will.
It is Judaism and its children – Christianity in all its forms and even, at least in early days, Islam – that broke open the mold. The Torah gives us the prototype Adam, a man who is capable of chaotic action, of doing things that are unpredictable and irrational. And Adam is infused with a divinely-inspired power to change the world with nothing more than his words: he names the animals and his wife, he and his offspring cultivate and herd and build and invent. The Torah tells us that the learning process was brutal: they were at least as likely to get things wrong as they were to get them right.
The Torah’s moral code starts with the basic rudiments of civilization; things like condemning murder and rape. But even with Cain’s murder of Abel, every single story and lesson in the Torah is presented not simply as “right” and “wrong” but instead is told with nuance and depth, with full awareness that the players did not have all the information, and they made decisions without knowledge of the outcome. In short, we can easily identify with Cain and Avraham and Rachel. Their troubles connect with our own.
In this, however, we have a crib sheet that the characters in the Torah lacked: the Torah itself. By studying it, there is a great deal we can come to understand about our own lives, and the decisions that we make every day.
Take, for example, Jacob’s decision to dress in the skins of a pair of lambs, and impersonate his brother, Esau. It was not Jacob’s idea, and it was surely questionable, as Jacob must have known. But his own mother, Rebekkah, was urging him to do it, and quickly! What was he supposed to do? It was a no-win situation; the path was murky at best.
We can ask the same question about Aharon, who was pressured by the people to create the Golden Calf. Moses was up on the mountain, missing and presumed dead, and the people were desperate for a surrogate. When they pressured Aaron, he complied. Aaron may not have been happy about it, but he collected the gold and put it in the fire. He may well have felt he had no choice.
In both cases, the Torah is silent about moral judgments. Instead, it tells us of a sacrifice of two goats for the sins of Israel on Yom Kippur, and a bull for Aharon’s sins – which we can connect to the sins of Jacob and Aharon.
In commanding us to bring these sacrifices on Yom Kippur, I think the Torah is telling us that G-d recognizes that our lives are not clear, that decisions are often hazy and even simply wrong. Getting it wrong is an inevitable price of life. It is an inevitable result of Free Will.
But it goes much further than this! For starters, neither Jacob nor Aaron ever made amends for their sin – they do not apologize or find some way to make things right. But we are enjoined specifically to do otherwise; to always look for a way to fix things going forward.
There is one other key aspect to their sin, and it connects directly with prayer and with Yom Kippur itself: pausing to think.
Imagine Jacob telling his mother, “I hear you, but I think I just need a few minutes to consult with G-d first.” Rebekkah, the woman who sought advice when the twins in her womb were fighting, would hardly have rejected the request. A few minutes of Jacob’s thoughtful prayer may well have led to a different outcome.
So, too, Aaron could have asked to the time to consult with G-d. The people who were agitating for Aharon to do something were frightened, but they were not openly seeking idolatry. It may well have been that Aaron, after prayer, would have found a different path.
Our Free Will is meant to be a result of consideration, and some degree of consultation. Otherwise it can all slide into chaos, and destruction. Decisions are not obvious, and life is sticky.
What do most people do, when faced with real Free Will? They run and hide. Consulting with others requires the ability to take criticism. Considering one’s own life forces each of us to acknowledge our failures. Doing this while still persevering is very challenging even for the greatest people.
Most people today, even in Western Societies, do not unlock their creative potential. Instead they fill their minds with background music and daytime TV and meaningless zero-sum enterprises like videogames and spectator sports. It is a terrible loss for humanity that the vast majority of people do not channel their energies into productive and creative enterprises.
While most people do not unlock their creative potential, those of us who are cognizant of just how powerful our thoughts and words and deeds truly can be, need to remain mindful of our own limitations: caught up in the moment, even the greatest people can do very stupid things.
This is such a huge part of this season for Jews: we know that each person can be the reason for the creation of the world, and we ask ourselves: “How can I be worthy of that valuation?” It is at once an empowering and terrifying question.