The Necessity of Choice

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Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife because she was barren. And Hashem answered him, and Rivka his wife conceived (25:21)

According to Rashi, both Yitzchak and Rivka were praying for a child, but Hashem answered only him and not her. Why? Answers Rashi: Because there is no comparison between the prayer of a tzaddik who is the child of an evildoer to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person.

I suspect that most of us have at some point found ourselves puzzled, even angered, by Rashi’s comment? Why should the merit of a tzaddik be greater by virtue of being the child of a tzaddik? If anything, is it not more meritorious to have completely separated oneself from a house of evil, as Rivka did, than to continue on in the path set by one’s parents.

The source of our confusion is that we do not properly understand what is meant by a tzaddik who is the child of a tzaddik. Had Yitzchak just emulated the example of his father Avraham he would not have been considered a tzaddik. Indeed, explains Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, anything we do solely because our parents taught us to do so does not confer any merit upon us.

Imitation, in short, does not confer merit. Only those actions that we make fully ours through conscious exercise of our free will are meritorious.

Yitzchak’s father Avraham was the greatest man who had ever lived. Avraham discovered Hashem through the use of his own intellect, and then proclaimed His existence to the entire world. The stature of Avraham, and the example that he had constantly before him, could easily have overwhelmed Yitzchak.

If, as Rav Dessler maintains, the exercise of one’s free will only begins where the parental model ends, the initial bar was set higher for Yitzchak than anyone who had ever proceeded him. What could Yitzchak hope to add to the path of Avraham? Yet in order for Yitzchak to be considered a tzaddik he had to do precisely that.

Only when he had added an entirely new derech of avodas Hashem, gvurah, to the chesed of Avraham, could Yitzchak be considered a tzaddik. Even when performing the same external actions as Avraham – e.g., digging the same wells that the servants of Avraham had dug – Yitzchak brought something of his inner being to those actions, and made them his own.

A PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT it meant for Yitzchak Avinu to be a “tzaddik ben tzaddik” has important implications for us in our role as parents and educators. It is not enough for us to teach our children the right thing to do. We have to empower them to make choices. We would not, for instance, allow our children to choose between good and bad, but we have to give them room to choose between two good paths, between better and best.

Without instilling in young Jews an awareness of their own bechira, of life as an endless series of choices, we doom them to remain forever superficial Jews falling far short of reaching their potential.

We define ourselves as individuals through the exercise of our free will, according to Rav Dessler. And that self-definition is the precondition for any meaningful relationship with Hashem. Any true relationship must be based on the individuality of both parties and not compelled by circumstances beyond their control. Only because we are capable of defining ourselves through the exercise of our free will do we exist as individuals capable of relating to Hashem.

To be a choosing being means, above all, to be a thinking being. A teacher once asked a group of eight-year-olds, to define a tzaddik. Most gave answers like, “A tzaddik is someone who fasts every Monday and Thursday.” But one little girl, the daughter of a famous educator, answered, “My tatte says that a tzaddik is someone who does what is right.”

It is worth contemplating the wisdom contained in that simple statement. First, it implies that every moment presents us with an opportunity to do what is right or the opposite. And that, in turn, requires us to think about what we are doing and why.

Where we see young people raised in observant homes and educated in religious educational environments lacking any deep connection to mitzvah observance, it is often because they have never experienced the mitzvos as anything more than obligations imposed from the outside. It has never occurred to them to ask: What kind of person does the Torah seek to shape? What would person shaped by the Torah look like; how would he or she act?

At best, the mitzvos are seen as a sort of checklist, the entry ticket that has to be paid for the right to do what one wants. But once one has gone through the checklist – e.g., negel vasser, bircos hashachar, Shachris, etc. – one has paid off the admission ticket and is now free to get on with one’s real life.

A famous youth organizer once asked a group of Orthodox teenagers if they had a choice to be born again would they prefer to be born Jewish or not. Well over half responded that they would prefer not to be born Jewish. And that is not so surprising. For if the mitzvos are just arbitrary obligations to be paid to enter the game of life, who wouldn’t prefer to enter free of charge, with no admission ticket required.

The Jewish Observer recently carried an important piece on the subject of “Adults at Risk.” Those described are just the kids mentioned above a few decades down the line. They never thought about the mitzvos in any deep fashion. Then suddenly one day they woke up and asked: Why I am doing these things? At that point, it no longer suffices that they’ve been doing these things (i.e., performing mitzvos, davening) all their lives, or that is what their parents or teachers taught them to do.

The problem, in Rav Dessler’s terminology, is that the mitzvos always remained external; they never became something truly theirs – internal – through the conscious exercise of choice. They brought nothing of themselves to their mitzvah observance — no thought, no feeling. And then one day, the emptiness hit.

That is what happens if we only teach our children what to do, without at the same time developing their ability to exercise their free will as conscious, thinking Jews.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on November 11th 2007.

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9 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The more we educate our children to appreciate the value of Yiddishkeit, the less we have to worry that they will be blinded by the fool’s gold values of the secular world that they will inevitably be exposed to as they get older.”

    I agree with the importance of an early, strong foundation, and would also add on the topic that people today are realizing that just as important, or more important than building external walls, is internal development. Also, as Rav Hirsch writes(see pg 48 of link), negativity towards what is kosher in the secular world can backfire. As Dr. Fried writes on page 40, each Orthodox group at its level of insularity/exposure to secular society needs to evaluate the effectiveness of what it is doing.

    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%204%20Fried.pdf

  2. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “Surely this is at the crux of the Cheredi/Modern divide. There are some of us that cannot see God’s creations and wisdom as learned, studied and experienced in what is described dismissively as the secular world as fool’s gold.” (Comment by mb — November 21, 2007 @ 10:01 am).

    Mb, I don’t think my point has anything to do with the “Chareidi/Modern divide”. I think that all caring and committed Jews, Chareidi and Modern Orthodox alike, agree that the hedonism, the permissiveness, the glorification of violence that characterize so much of contemporary society are antithetical to Torah values; indeed, to the values of basic decency. I’m pretty sure that this is what Joel Rich was referring to (Joel, please correct me if I’m wrong). There is an undoubted attractiveness in a lifestyle with no rules or restrictions, where one can eat what and where one wants and indulge in every forbidden pleasure, but the endless series of momentary gratification such a lifestyle provides SHOULD be dismissed as “fool’s gold”, and cannot compare to the true happiness and fulfillment enjoyed by one who lives a Torah-true life, whether the Chareidi or Modern Orthodox version. I believe that if we can teach our children to appreciate a life of Torah and Mitzvos, they are much less likely to follow the “call of the wild”.

    Dr. Gewirtz, I have no desire nor did I ever intend with my comments to debate the merits of Chareidi vs. Modern Orthodox “hashkafa”. By now, I am well aware of your stance regarding engagement with secular society, and I can appreciate your views even if I personally do not subscribe to them. But I think we’re discussing apples and oranges here. By “secular world” I was referring to contemporary secular culture; particularly, the undoubtedly negative aspects of that culture to which I referred above. That part of the secular world is profane in the extreme; it has nothing positive to offer an observant Jew, and carries no rewards for participating in it (except perhaps the opportunity to earn reward in Heaven by withstanding its temptations), as I’m sure you agree.

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Those described are just the kids mentioned above a few decades down the line. They never thought about the mitzvos in any deep fashion. Then suddenly one day they woke up and asked: Why I am doing these things?”

    On the community level as well, there can be times when outside influences force inner development; IIRC, Rabbi Berel Wein writes how the golus experience during the Middle Ages forced the Jewish people to clarify and flesh out what were basic beliefs. Today, outside influences may have the effect of forcing some in the insular FFB world to move away from FFH, Frum From Habit, to a greater awareness of and appreciation for Yiddishkeit. Thus, we now have new educational intiatives such as Project Chazon or “Twenty Most Asked Questions by Beis Yaakov Girls”, something unheard of before.

    The silver lining of the recent controversies, Kids/Adults at Risk, and openness of the internet, may be that the people may now examine elements of taamie hamitzvos, hashkafa, and emunah more deeply. In the first case, when part of a belief system is challenged(i.e., science/Torah reconciliations), then the whole structure could be in danger of collapse, but on the positive side, it could also be reevaluated in a deeper way. Similarly, being in the position of being forced to choose between respect for gedolim and other aspects of life, causes people to think deeper about a number of issues.

  4. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Chaim Wolfson: teaching “the secular world has nothing to offer that can compare to the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvos.” is only one derech. The other requires that we live an integrated life bringing honor to God and His/our people by how we behave in the secular world. For some, the secular world is neither sacred nor profane; it is just the stage on which we live and do Mitzvot. For some, the secular world has much to offer both practically and intellectually. One cannot ever deny the risks, but there are also rewards and many feel an obligation to participate.

  5. mb says:

    “Personally, I think the answer lies in Jonathan’s wise words. The best form of immunization is the realization that the secular world has nothing to offer that can compare to the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The more we educate our children to appreciate the value of Yiddishkeit, the less we have to worry that they will be blinded by the fool’s gold values of the secular world that they will inevitably be exposed to as they get older.”

    Surely this is at the crux of the Cheredi/Modern divide. There are some of us that cannot see God’s creations and wisdom as learned, studied and experienced in what is described dismissively as the secular world as fool’s gold.In fact, the opposite.

  6. joel rich says:

    Chaim,

    Thank you for your kind wishes, may we all share in many, many smachot.

    Last night at sheva brachot I spoke on the importance of the experiential mesora[tradition] (as described by R’ YD Soloveitchik in his hesped[eulogy] for the Tolner rebbitzin) and to understand the mesiras nefesh (sacrifice) of one’s own family members (no longer with us) for yahadut as well as their personifying midot – even if they could not quote every R’ Chaim. The anonymous, humble player who played his role and walks quietly off the stage is the beloved of HKB”H (again R’YDS). I agree completely with R’JR on the need to breath life into our observance (without making observance itself seem worth less)

    Where we may have to agree to disagree is on the 1st half of my talk which compared Yaakov’s “im Lavan Garti” – 1st explanation in rashi re: the blessings of yitchak were not carried out for me in practice of authority [assumedly yaakov guessed this was what esav was unhappy enough about to bring 400 unsmiling men with him] – versus Avraham – ger vtoshav anochi – that we are both citizens and strangers- we do have common cause with our neighbors to an extent and benefit each other, and then at some point we recognize that while this is true, we still have a unique destiny which we must pursue alone.

    KT

  7. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “The interesting question imvho is whether certain communities (MO and charedi in their own ways)will realize that they may have gone to far to protect their children from a possible illness and the cost to their adults is far greater.” (Comment by joel rich — November 20, 2007 @ 10:17 am).

    Joel,
    This is an age-old question that all caring parents struggle with. To what extent should we expose our children to potentially harmful influences in order to immunize them from much more devestating sickness further on in life. Personally, I think the answer lies in Jonathan’s wise words. The best form of immunization is the realization that the secular world has nothing to offer that can compare to the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The more we educate our children to appreciate the value of Yiddishkeit, the less we have to worry that they will be blinded by the fool’s gold values of the secular world that they will inevitably be exposed to as they get older.

    On a personal note (if that’s permitted under the new Cross Current guidelines), Mazel Tov on the marriage of your son. May you see only “nachas” from him and all your children.

  8. mb says:

    “Interesting is that in Psalms (as we say in hallel) it says (my translation) “Answer me Hashem (editors note – for another time – what is the request?) because I am your male servant(slave), I am your male servant(slave) the son of your female servant (slave)”. 2 obvious questions -why mention lineage at all and, based on your insight, why the mother and not the father. IIRC thes simpler question is answered that one who is born into slavery is more servile than one not ”

    Indeed, perhaps that is why it was OK for Moses to hit the rock when first leaving Egypt and it wasn’t decades later when they had finally known freedom. From Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

  9. joel rich says:

    Interesting is that in Psalms (as we say in hallel) it says (my translation) “Answer me Hashem (editors note – for another time – what is the request?) because I am your male servant(slave), I am your male servant(slave) the son of your female servant (slave)”. 2 obvious questions -why mention lineage at all and, based on your insight, why the mother and not the father. IIRC thes simpler question is answered that one who is born into slavery is more servile than one not (perhaps this might answer why the mother but not a slam dunk) the deeper question perhaps by the fact that (as articulated by R’ YD Soloveitchik ZT”L) the mother (as an archtype) gives the child the experiential torah as compared to the father’s (as an archtype) intellectual torah.

    I think we are all familiar with well meaning parents who seek to protect their children from all harm/germs etc. At some point this is counterproductive, the child gets no immunities from disease and is afraid to cross the street by himself etc. Of course there is a trade-off, some children may get sick etc. but as a community we accept that probability and allow our teenagers to cross the street by themselves. The interesting question imvho is whether certain communities (MO and charedi in their own ways)will realize that they may have gone to far to protect their children from a possible illness and the cost to their adults is far greater.

    KT