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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Take the Pepsi Challenge of Life!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 3

Have you ever taken the Pepsi challenge?  They place two unmarked cups in front of you and ask you to choose which is better.  When you do that, are you exercising free choice?

Of course not!  You are making a decision based on your preprogrammed taste buds that are attuned to certain tastes that you have grown up to enjoy.  In other words, most decisions you make in life come down simply to nature and nurture.

What then is free choice and when do you get to exercise it?

King Solomon writes in Song of Songs, “How beautiful are your sandaled footsteps, O daughter of the noble one!”

Rava expounds the verse: How beautiful are the feet of Israel when they go up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals!  We are called “daughter of the noble one,” which refers to our forefather Abraham, as the Psalmist declares, “The nobles of the nations gathered, people of the G-d of Abraham.”  The nobles gathered to the G-d of Abraham, not the G-d of Isaac or Jacob.  Why?  He was the first convert. 

Rashi explains:  ‘The nobles of the nations’ refer to the converts who nobly volunteered to accept the yoke of mitzvos upon themselves.  Tosfos adds: Abraham was the first to circumcise himself.

Certainly, Isaac fulfilled the mitzvah of bris milah (circumcision), as did Jacob and all our forebears!  But what made Abraham the noble one?  He was the first.  Our other patriarchs did not really choose to do the mitzvos; they did it because that is how they grew up.  Abraham, by contrast, made a conscious decision to accept the yoke of mitzvos.  Therefore he was deemed noble.  Likewise, any individual in history until today who chooses the path of Torah and mitzvos is similarly deemed noble.

When I go to minyan (synagogue) each day, do I exercise free choice in doing so?  Not really.  After all, I’m the rabbi.  I’m almost expected contractually to be there!  But the congregant who wrestles with the snooze button and pulls himself out of bed to minyan – now that’s a choice consciously made! 

Later that day, that same person might be invited to a business lunch and just have a drink.  Did he choose not to have the ham sandwich?   Maybe, maybe not.  If he’d been brought up kosher and never touched treyf (non-kosher) in his life, then his ‘choice’ not to eat wasn’t really his.  It would be deplorable in his mind to go near the stuff!  However, somebody who has eaten treyf their whole life and makes the incredible decision to give it up, now that’s an exercise of her free choice! 

Does that mean Isaac and Jacob never had free choice?  Of course they did!  But not when it came to their bris milah or keeping kosher.  The choices they made were above and beyond the system their parents had put in place for them.  They might have struggled with being nice to their wayward brothers.  They might have struggled with not raising their voices at their difficult children.  They might even have struggled with allocating time to learn Torah.  But the basics of Torah and mitzvos were given to them.

Free choice is an unbelievable gift from Above.  Don’t take it for granted.  Don’t assume that since you’re doing the right thing you must be making the right decisions.  Often the path you’ve taken is the gift your parents have bestowed upon you.  You need to figure out where in your performance of mitzvos your true struggle lies.  And then you will be able to truly exercise your right to choose.

Maybe you struggle with going to minyan.  Maybe you struggle with not getting angry with your kids.   Maybe you struggle with making time to learn Torah each day.  Whatever your challenge is, that’s where you get your gift of free choice.

The Almighty declares in the Torah: Behold, I have placed before you today, life and good versus death and evil.  Choose life!

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