This is a festive week for us. Shavuot arrives and with it a renewed focus on law, the 10 Commandments and the idea and ideal of Revelation. This issue is at the heart of denominational differences with Judaism. After all, the Progressive aspects of our community officially rejected the belief in a Divine Revelation at Sinai. This really is the foundational belief of Liberal Judaism and is the major theological distinction between it and Orthodoxy.
Be that as it may, I wanted to raise an issue that, I think, emerges gradually as we get older. This is the idea that, as we age, do we have the ability, or courage to reveal who we really are and what we really want in life? This may seem like a somewhat off the wall type question, but it really goes to the heart of so much of what we are about as Jews. Let me suggest that it this idea of our true self is very powerful and, for some, frightening. For some, and you may know someone like this, really casting off the pre-conceived notions of what or who we should be is a very daunting, and frightening task. Do we still live a life that is being defined by others, or defined by what we think others think of us? How often do we encounter situations in families where we still may hold on to a belief that our adult children will become something that we wished for instead of honoring who they have become.
Is there a blessing in acceptance? Do we reach a stage in life that allows us to accept the realities of life and let go of what we may have wished for or hoped for, or even fantasized about? This idea of blessing is something that rarely gets discussed. We may say a blessing or know of many, but is there a blessing for when we come to a stage in our life that we accept who we are, the realities of our life, our family, our physical self? For some of our community that blessing has been contained in the simchat chochmah, blessing that celebrates us attaining a certain age and, we hope, the life wisdom that we have gained. At the heart of this discussion, I think, is the fundamental Jewish value of choice: the fact that we have the power to choose the life we live and how we react to the contingencies of our life. To accept that reality, to embrace it, is a blessing. While we cannot change what was, we can embrace how we will choose to face the future and deal with the contingencies of the present.
This issue of the blessing of choice is quite powerful. I mean, are you a person who believes that you have the freedom to make the choices we have in life? Or are you a determinist person? This is that old free-will vs. determinist debate which has challenged students for centuries. Akiba solved by saying that it has been determined that we have free will! But this is really a discussion about our individual ability to make choices for us within the contexts that we face. Those contexts easily can determine the types of choices we have open to us. But we celebrate on this holiday the idea that we can make choices. We hope that, as Deuteronomy 30:19 states, we make those choices that celebrate and sanctify life. We
This idea of celebrating the blessing of choice was described in a recent Washington Post article from May 22, 2023, by David von Drehle. The Opinion essay entitled “My Neighbor Lived To Be 109. This Is What I Learned From Him”, describes the life journey of Charlie and his view on the power of choice. The author even cites Viktor Frankl who wrote that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. As we celebrate the events at Sinai, whether we believe them literally or as metaphor, let us also celebrate that we have been given the blessing of choice, the choice to reveal our own true self. This, like the story of the Israelites in the Wilderness, is not an easy task. It takes a lifetime and, as we age, the rewards are without measure.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.
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