Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Chain of Choice

At 8pm Last night, Brachah (she’s imaginary) sat down at her computer to check her email. When she looked up, it was 1am and she was playing Farmville on Facebook. She had skipped her regular shiur, failed to do the laundry, and would now need to wake up early the next morning to make her kids’ lunch, leaving no time to daven before rushing to work.

Where did Brachah go wrong? Easy – when she decided to play Farmville. But that’s only half the story. A number of different choices led her to Farmville, some good, others less so. Along her “chain of choices”: the choice to have internet access in her home; the choice to join Facebook; the choice to check her email; the choice to logon to Facebook; the choice to play Farmville; the choice to keep playing until 1am. You could argue that her only bad choice was the last one. But Brachah has a weakness for the internet. It might not be a good idea for her to have internet in her home. If she needs internet access at home it would make sense for her to have set aside a specific time during the day to check her email. Or maybe she should avoid sites on the internet that tend to suck up time.
Each choice in life leads to yet another choice that ultimately leads to the final, wrong choice. And, the closer we got to the final choice, the harder it becomes to make the right choice. Brachah’s (and our) problem lies in the fact that she didn’t really think that sitting down to check her email at night was a choice. It’s just part of life, something we do automatically, without thinking. That’s the root of the problem, and also a fundamental point made by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah.
Our ability and freedom to make choices in life form the foundation of Jewish though. Rambam devotes two entire chapters of Hilchot Teshuvah to the principle of Freedom of Choice. He writes,
רשות כל אדם נתונה לו: אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו; ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע, הרשות בידו... אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירבעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי, או כיליי או שוע; וכן שאר כל הדעות. (רמב"ם הלכות תשובה פרק ה' הלכות א-ב)

One has a free choice to follow either the good ways and to be righteous, or to follow the bad ways and be wicked…Do not even consider what the stupid gentiles and most of the idiots of Israel say, that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, decrees upon each person at the time of birth whether he will be good or bad. This is not so - every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses our Teacher, or as wicked as Jeroboam, clever or stupid, merciful or cruel, misery or noble, or indeed to possess any of the other temperaments. Nobody can force one, decree upon one, or lead one into one of the ways, but one should choose a way out of one's own free will. (Maimonides Laws of Repentance Chapter 5, 1-2)
Without choice, Teshuvah loses all meaning. What difference would my choices make if they weren’t really my own? But Rambam also makes a larger point: Every action is a choice, and it’s up to us to remain aware of this critical fact. Our choices also compound each other. The sooner we make a good choice, the better off we are. The longer we push off the right choice, the harder it is to make. A person really can achieve greatness (or the opposite, God forbid), if he makes the right (or wrong) choices at each step of the way.
This principle is critically important to us as parents? Do we teach our children that everything in life is a choice? All too often as parents, we make the small and large choices for our children, in order to guide them on the proper path. But if we set overly restrictive limitations on them, we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to make good choices. Obviously, life is about finding the middle ground: choosing for our children when necessary, but giving them enough space, especially as they grow older, to choose for themselves.
Most importantly, we must always remind them that what happens to them depends on the choices that they make, and the sooner they make the right choice, the better off they’ll be.