Large, medium, or small — regular, decaf, sugar, cream, or black, in the sometimes mundane ebb and flow of daily life we are often bombarded with seemingly insignificant choices that we wrestle with as if the happiness of our lives hangs in the balance. Ironically, the monumental choices are frequently decided in the blink of an eye or avoided all together and therefore, by virtue of not making a decision — a decision is made.
This enigmatic truism shows its head on occasion at our synagogue board meetings as we sometimes find ourselves debating the minutest of details better left for committee work, while avoiding the more weighty and substantive decisions that would imprint our values and philosophy on the psyche of our synagogue. As president of the synagogue, it is my role to corral these discussions away from the minutiae and towards the meaningful while respecting the needs and rights of our board members to express their valued opinions. As you can imagine, this is not always an easy task.
So I find myself pondering why it is that this seemingly contradictory phenomenon is so prevalent. Sure, the simple choices we make might bring on some regret for the entrée that wasn’t as good as we’d hoped or the five minutes longer we spent in the checkout line at Shop Rite. But it’s the challenging and profound choices that truly impact our lives and reveal who we are as individuals and what we believe in as a synagogue.
Debates flow from the questions whose choices provide no real simple answers. Much like the swinging back and forth of a pendulum, decisions can be branded as potentially unpopular yet beneficial to our membership or perhaps politically imprudent but fiscally responsible. Difficult, painful, and sometimes disconcerting, these are the debates that are worthy of our important work whether it is at our board meetings or in our own personal lives.
Recently, I was witness to a seemingly innocent incident where an individual had successfully completed a sale for his company. He wanted to share his good fortune with his friend by offering him the company’s referral bonus. Quickly it became apparent that the customer was not referred to by the friend or anyone else for that matter. So with a wink and nod and a hearty handshake the friend happily accepted the reward for simply having the good fortune of being acquainted to the right person. There was no moral struggle, no weighing of the pros and cons as the person happily accepted the unearned reward with seemingly less thought then they might have put into the choice of what shirt to wear that morning. And while we all equally share the burden of struggling with such choices, this individual’s stature in our society, many would argue, should have eliminated any consideration and elicited a polite and courteous no thank you.
Perhaps some might say I am being somewhat idealistic or even self-righteous to expect someone, particularly in this economy, to turn down such a well-intentioned gift, all in the name of moral behavior. Besides, what harm really came from this and after all, we are all flawed human beings and decisions are never that simple. In many of the trials we face, it isn’t simply just our morals that are challenged. Our choices are often mired in our desire to please others, avoid confrontation, and our propensity to choose the path of least resistance. Fear at the consequences of our decisions can sometimes grip us so tightly that our choices arise out of the need for relief rather than the need of righteousness. Nonetheless, we can debate the merit of any such decision but regardless of reason or justification, ultimately it is our choices that determine the values and ideals that represent who we are as a synagogue and as individuals.
Recently, my son Alex and I were listening to his favorite musical group Mumford and Sons and he asked me what the meaning of a particular song was. The song’s title is Timshel, which was conspicuously absent throughout the lyrics. As I read through what seemed like a poem a particular verse stood out for me and solidified for me what I had been contemplating and what would soon became the theme of this article.
And you have your choices
And these are what make man great
His ladder to the stars (Mumford and Sons)
So, I scoured the Internet to search for the significance of the title Timshel and how it connected to these three inspiring lines that had perfectly harmonized with the theme for this article and my thoughts that had been ruminating in my head. Serendipitously, I discovered the word Timshel (תמשול) was actually Hebrew and that these three lines of truth were inspired by the words of John Steinbeck from his epoch novel East of Eden. A veritable midrash on the story of Cain and Abel, Steinbeck’s novel was inspired by sixteen verses of Torah that recounted the tumultuous sibling rivalry of the son’s of Adam.
In the novel, the story of Cain and Able is discussed by two of the main characters. In particular, the correct translation of the word Timshel, in chapter 4, verse 7 of B’reisheet (Genesis), is debated and becomes the major theme of the book. There are many suggested translations of this word from shalt, should, or must. But, Steinbeck, through his characters, affirm “thou mayest” as the best expression of the Torah’s intent. The subtle nuance in how the word is translated is important as it signifies, in the context of the sentence, that God has not predetermined us to be either good or bad. That we have the power to make those decisions ourselves. God says, “thou mayest rule over sin.”
So there it was; words from the Torah, a great American novel, a beautiful song, and the struggles of decision making that accompany any synagogue president or any of us as individuals. It’s as if the theme had been perfectly placed in a beautifully wrapped box and elegantly tied with a bow. So I hastily ripped open this package of my imagination and found inside the precious gift of self-determination. Each choice we make in life is like a rung on a ladder. A falter or a slip can cause us to descend, while a positive step can lift us towards the sky. Our religion, our community, and our society give us guidelines and answers to the simple and obvious questions. But, it’s the complex decisions; the decisions that are neither right nor wrong that we are left to decide alone. These are the decisions that arise from our souls and our hearts and determine how close we get to the stars.