The weeks before a presidential election provide spiritual fodder for the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Throughout political campaigns, candidates and their handlers are keenly aware of the great toll a simple gaffe or misjudgment can take. Four years ago, Howard Dean, the then-governor of Vermont (today Democratic National Committee chairman) was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.
But he crashed and burned, according to many because of what came to be dubbed his “I Have a Scream” speech. After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, Dr. Dean declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn. That single moment’s decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of the doctor’s road to the highest office in the land.
There have been other such moments for presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie’s tears of pain, Gary Hart’s infelicitous mugging for his “Monkey Business” snapshot, Michael Dukakis’s donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet. Each unguarded moment, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.
Every one of us, too, in our personal lives, comes face to face at times with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can lead to places we don’t want to go.
And we are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President. We’re in the running, after all, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.
In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead either to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.
Every single decision we make, of course, is important. Each day of our lives presents occasions for choices, chances to seize meaningful things – a mitzvah, a heartfelt prayer, an act of charity – or to forgo them. Every opportunity to be morose or angry is a chance to hurt others, and ourselves – and likewise a chance to do neither, and achieve something priceless.
But there are also particularly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions. The Talmud teaches that “one can acquire his universe” – the one that counts: the world-to-come – or “destroy” it “in a single moment.”
Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize. When we make a decision about, say, where to live or what synagogue to attend – not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children – we are defining our futures, and others’. And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord them the gravity they are due.
We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments. Consider the Talmudic case of the “conditional husband.”
In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman – the declaration of the woman’s kiddushin, or “specialness” to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor. If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion indeed is. Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren’t married.
What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration “on the condition that I am a tzaddik,” a “totally righteous person”? The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).
Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the man “may have contemplated repentance” just before his proposal.
That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road. The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself – at any point we choose – through sheer, sincere will.
This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads. All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own – to make choices that will change our lives and futures for the holier.
© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran