Is Judaism an All or Nothing Proposition?
By Mrs. Sharon Isaacson
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If G-d is real and gave the Torah, and it is all true, does it make sense to pick and choose which parts of the Torah to keep? Isn’t it all one system? Does it make sense, for instance, to keep a high standard of kashrut, but cheat on taxes? Or keep hilchot Shabbat but not tzniyut? Or say birkat hamazon for the seudot Shabbat but not during the week?
This realization is very daunting. Upon accepting the truth of Judaism, it seems that there is no escaping any parts of the package! This pressure is exacerbated by the pain of cognitive dissonance when our behavior does not match what we know to be true. And although one of the ways to alleviate that pain is to rationalize our behavior or our standard of belief, isn’t the proper approach to act with integrity and raise our behavior to meet what we know to be true? Yet, how can we do everything?! Our bodies and minds can’t handle it! Moreover, we sometimes feel that negative parts of our personality are hardwired (e.g., our temper is genetic, etc), or our situation is just too difficult, and we just feel unable to do everything!
In response to these difficulties one often hears the suggestions – “take it slow,” “it’s a process,” or “you need to aspire to do everything but you can’t do everything at once.” These are nice lines which feel good, but is it right? Can we cut ourselves this slack? Don’t people use this as an escape hatch??
The resolution of this dilemma may rest on a well known principle developed by Rav Eliyahu Dessler in his Kuntrus HaBechira (Michtav Me’Eliyahu). Rav Dessler uses the metaphor of a raging battle to describe the struggle that we have with our yetzer hara. In a battle, even though theoretically two whole armies are engaged in war, practically only those at the battlefront are fighting. There are no actual hostilities in the areas behind each of the fronts, as these territories are firmly under the control of the respective sides. Winning a battle may push the front in one direction or another and when the next battle begins the fighting will take place in a different area.
This is comparable to our struggles with our yetzer hara. According to Rav Dessler, a person only has free choice in a very circumscribed area – their “point of choice” or “nekudat habechira.” This is the point where a person has a real inner struggle and could go either way. This is the front line in the battle between our good and evil inclinations.
Each person’s nekudat bechira depends on the package she has been given, how she was raised, and choices that she’s made in the past. These factors set the framework of the choices which are real for him. Outside the person’s nekudat bechira are choices that are not real for us, whether for the good (e.g., for us – to have perfect kavanah throughout our tefillah) or for the bad (e.g., for us – to murder). The nekudat bechira is also a moving target, going up and down with our successes and failures in our struggles against the evil inclination. If a person successfully conquers her yetzer hara at her bechira point, it will eventually become second nature for her. The battle point will move upward. If a person succumbs to her desires, sin becomes second nature. Since each person’s nekudat bechira is at a different point, each person is judged on his own trajectory.
The implications of this are astounding. We are judged only at our specific nekudat bechira, and we are not responsible for what is beyond our nekudat bechira. As the Rambam states (Hilchot Teshuva 3:3), only G-d himself can judge a person’s actions, since only He is aware of all the influences acting on him and therefore what level of responsibility he has for any given action. This helps resolve the pain of cognitive dissonance when our behavior does not match our standards of belief, as long as we are trying our hardest to make the right choices within our nekudat bechira.
This also validates our feeling that some parts of our personality seem to be set, and that it seems almost impossible for us to react positively in certain situations. Rav Dessler acknowledges the empirical reality that we are influenced by our environment and our genetic code, while simultaneously affirming the truth of bechira chofshit.
Rav Dessler’s approach helps us understand how we can embark on a program of change step by step. It helps us avoid being overwhelmed and guilt ridden: we acknowledge that, for now, there are certain things that are really out of our reach and beyond our control, so we don’t need to carry guilt for those things. At the same time, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to exert every effort to improve, and it teaches us that even things that seem impossible today can eventually be within our reach, if we have a thirst to move up. All we have to do is properly identify our nekudot bechira, and try our hardest to consistently make the right choices at our points of struggle.
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