The ability to choose is one of the things we humans say is what defines us as human. Where we go wrong is our understanding of what types of choices matter – both to our humanity and our growth.
Anyone who has had a pet more sophisticated than a goldfish knows that animals have plenty of capacity to consider options, read the room, and make choices.
Meanwhile, anyone who’s picked out their clothes (or breakfast cereal, or the route to work) early in the morning while half asleep knows that some decisions aren’t really choices at all.
So what is “choice”, then? How and when do we truly “choose”?
Rabbi Akiva Tatz discusses this at length. Starting with the idea that true choice happens around moral, rather than functional, aspects of our life (so not cereal, socks, or traffic), he points out how actions aren’t even a blip on our moral radar. Most people do not wake up in the morning and struggle with the decision of whether or not to knock down a little old lady and snatch their purse. It’s not that such a circumstance is unthinkable, there are far too many people for whom it’s a bleak reality. But for most of us it’s not even a consideration. At the other end of the moral/ethical scale, there are behaviors of the truly righteous which we may know of, but find utterly unattainable. Because of that, neither of those extremes is a “choice”.
He goes on to describe how each person has a “bechirah (decision) point” – the line where the struggle truly does exist. For some that line might be drawn around controlling our temper (or other impulsive behavior). Or perhaps the struggle is with adopting a new positive habit (perhaps even one that could be seen as typically religious – prayer, giving thanks before or after eating, etc). Whatever it is, the choice in that matter is real. It’s honestly up in the air whether one may or may not do it, and there’s real thought and effort of will involved.
Until it becomes habit. There’s a moment when holding back an angry comment is the default, rather than optional, choice. While it’s not as ingrained as not mugging people on the street, it’s no longer the challenge it once was. This is often when there’s a moment of recognition that the bechira point, the line of internal conflict, has moved.
Here in the month of Elul, our goal is first to honestly assess where our bechira point is; then to honestly determine if we are giving our very best effort to facing the challenge (whatever it is). And if not, Elul is the perfect time to ask for help, whether the assistance we need is heavenly or human.