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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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We’re not robots in God’s hands

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As I grow older, I often think of Robert Frost’s haunting poem The Road Not Taken.

The poem begins: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveller, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth/ Then took the other.

The poem concludes: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence/ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/ I took the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.

There is no escape. A choice is necessary. Before us extend the two roads. Hesitantly, we decide. Confronted with this dilemma, the baseball player, coach and manager Yogi Berra suggested that “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

It has been asserted that behind every certainty there stands a concealment, behind every clarity a new mystery is revealed. Assurance and doubt are twin offspring of mystery.

Author Ernestine Ulmer cynically declared, “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first.”

One of the most harrowing moments in contemporary literature gives William Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice, its title. It’s the moment describing Sophie’s choice, the most terrible choice a mother could be asked to make: which of her two children to turn over to Nazi destruction and which to keep alive.

“I can’t chose! I can’t chose!” she screams again and again. It’s only when the unrelenting doctor threatens to murder both her children that she blurts out, “Take the baby! Take my little girl.”

There are strident voices these days that strenuously deny that we are free to make important choices. Some declare that we are the products of our heredity, others affirm that our environment makes what we are.

Judaism affirms that we are free beings. Many things in life are determined, but in moral matters we have free choice to do good or evil. We are not robots in the hands of God or puppets in the iron grip of cause and effect. Novelty, freedom, creativity, spontaneity are realities. Judaism refuses to surrender human freedom. Long ago, the sage Akiba taught, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.”

But ultimately, the glory and the anguish of being human derive from our ability to chose and direct the course of our lives. It is often tempting to throw up our hands and plead helplessness. But that strategy leads only to defeat and despair. Significant living is always characterized by the knowledge that human will and determination play a decisive role in deciding what kind of person we will become.

In his later years, Frost wrote, “I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life in three words – ‘it goes on.’”

Ultimately, men and women who rest most easily within themselves are those who have chosen a road – by design or lucky incident – that gives them a sense of being needed, of being purposeful, of having found a welcome and necessary niche in society. But how difficult it is to forget that road not taken.

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