By Rabbi Irwin Wiener, D.D.
Sometimes when things do not seem to go according to our wishes or desires we tend to say that it is “ordained” or it was destined to be. It is a simple way of explaining the unexplainable. After all, we are not built to delve too deeply into things that seem to make no sense. It is a defense mechanism that gives us the ability to cope.
And yet, when the dust settles, there is a frustration that leaves us even more puzzled about life and its many experiences. It is frustrating because we are taught that we have the ability to choose the path we take with many of the decisions we make. Do we go to the left or to the right? Do we accept one answer without looking for another? Are we satisfied that our choices are motivated by fact and not fantasy? All these come into play when deciding our journey through the adventures of life.
Even past generations pronounced that everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. On the surface, this would seem to be contradictory. But think about it. We are faced with choices every day. Some choices are simple such as what to wear or what to eat. And then there are choices that can be mind boggling such as to love and be loved and by whom or to go to war or make peace. In the end, what we decide can be construed as being ordained. No matter what choice we make, as Shakespeare said, “It is written in the stars.”
Here is where the test of faith and understanding takes root. How can we, on the one hand, be free to choose our destiny, and on the other, be told that the exercise is futile? Why? Because we are also taught that the fate of man is self-determining. And we also know that we are responsible for our choices, right or wrong. We are answerable for choices even though, in some instances, we were forced into them.
I recently watched an old movie. It was 1950s’ vintage and concentrated on the “forgotten war”—the “Korean Conflict”—as it was also called. The subject matter dealt with the horror of imprisonment by the enemy and the torture that was endured, both physical and mental.
The ranking officer, in this particular prison environment, was a major who, it was thought, became a traitor and even gave support to the enemy. Eventually when the war had ended, he and his men were returned and he then faced court martial charges of treason as well as the responsibility for the death of two of his subordinates.
It was an imposing movie because the major offered no explanation and even refused to defend himself. One by one his men gave testimony supporting the charges. I will not go into the details other than to state that it was clear to me that sometimes we make choices that are difficult to accept and perhaps even more difficult for others to understand.
I doubt even God would have known what this man would do, or for that matter what we would do. We all have differing degrees of conscience. What can break one person would not necessarily break another. Sometimes, in fact, we find that we can muster the courage to do things we never thought we were capable of.
At the end of the movie we are told, in the most compelling display of emotion and contrition, that his choice to give aid and comfort to the enemy was dictated by his desire to keep his men alive. These lives were threatened daily and the enemy commander made it perfectly clear that if he did not agree to deliver the messages and make an attempt to indoctrinate his men, that he would be made to watch each one die in front of him and they would also be forced to watch. What would you do?
All of us can sit back and follow this unimaginable ordeal unfold and offer different opinions, but in the end, it really does not matter because we can never know for sure what our choice would be and if we could live with the choice.
Here we are at a crucial juncture in our lives. The gates of life are open and we have the opportunity to walk through. But it is not that simple. The gate is within our each and yet seems to be unreachable. Each year ends and a new one is begins. What kind of a year was it? Sure, it was filled with happy times and memorable occasions but it was also filled with disappointments and frustrations.
There was illness and recovery. Perhaps we lost someone we loved or just casually knew. Could it be that we offended someone and now seek forgiveness? Did we not care enough and now regret that action and seek to recapture the feeling of connection? In all these instances, we faced choices and we made some good ones and some bad ones.
Here and now we have the ability to take that step that will bring us closer to the gate and even garner the strength to make it through. It is within our grasp. It requires our ability to remove the shackles of hate and indifference. We need to determine that it is necessary for us to move forward enabling us to begin a new chapter void of unnecessary impulses that undermine our ability to love and be loved.
The gate swings two ways; outward, allowing us to be part of a greater experience and fulfillment, and inward, allowing us to enter and be accepted by God as we attempt to accept God. This is why we listen to the prayers that have been recited from time immemorial, enabling us to reach a level of spiritual involvement that will give us the ability to be refreshed and complete. We are compelled to keep the connection alive that has sustained us as throughout our lives. This is no small accomplishment.
Yes, we all have choices in life. God is not waiting for us to make the choice that is already written but rather to erase the past and write a new chapter. God waits for us to make choices because that is what is pre-ordained—the ability to make choices. Adam and Eve had a choice and they chose to be able to make choices. This is the beauty of not sitting back and waiting for things to happen—nothing is “ordained.” Is this not why pencils come with erasers?