The Choice Challenge

Every week I am reading Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah and in his second essay on parshat Va-’era’ Held once again demonstrates the depth of his scholarship and the breadth of his reading.  In discussing the age-old question of how the biblical God could harden Pharaoh’s heart yet maintain Judaism’s belief in our God-given right to freedom Held makes a suggestion.

Held suggests that freedom is not so much:

… a fact, but it is also—and perhaps primarily—an aspiration. Real freedom requires, R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–93) writes, “a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility by man without even a moment’s inattentiveness.” [Soleveitchik, On Repentance p. 143] Mindfulness and constant, exquisite attention are necessary for freedom to flourish. Freedom needs to be nurtured and attended to, not taken for granted.

R. Shlomo Wolbe (1914–2005) adds that “freedom is not at all part of humanity’s daily spiritual bread. It is, rather, one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain. It is not lesser than love, and fear, and cleaving to God, acquiring which clearly demands great effort. We can acquire freedom, and therefore we must acquire it.” [Wolbe, Alei Shur p 155]

Freedom is, in other words, a spiritual project. In order to thrive, it must be brought into awareness (Soloveitchik) and actively cultivated (Wolbe). Then, and only then, can we soften our hearts. Shai Held. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus

Joseph Soloveitchik is widely known, especially within the modern-orthodox world as the head of Yeshiva University and scion of a famous Lithuanian Rabbinic Dynasty, but R. Shlomo Wolbe is hardly known outside of the haredi (ultra-orthodox) world which he joined at the tender age of 19.  Wolbe transferred from the University of Berlin and ended up at the Meir Yeshiva in Poland. Wolbe, who passed away in 2005 was considered the last of the great mussarniks, he was also my rebbe during the two years I studied at Yeshivat Beer Yaakov where he was the mashgiach ruchni (spiritual guide).

Rabbi Wolbe lectured and wrote extensively primarily for the “yeshiva world” on subjects such as a progressive approach to education for children and adolescents and intense introspection for adults. But there was one singular point of departure that ran through all of Wolbe’s teachings. Never take the easy road.

If he saw a yeshiva bachur (student) who had previously concealed his tzitzit, wearing them exposed, or a previously clean-shaven student, sporting a pious beard, he would call the student over and ask: “What happened to you… did you become a tzadik (saint)?” For Wolbe there were no shortcuts to piety, certainly not by a superficial change in outward appearance. The higher level of spiritual consciousness of the mussarnik could only be reached by the hard work of the heart (hovot halevavot) and the sweat of the soul.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe once asked a pupil: “Did you ever say the Shema Yisrael?” “Of course!”, said the student. “Did you say it with kavana (intention and attention)?” The pupil replied, “Yes, of course, Rabbi.” Said Rabbi Wolbe, “Tell me, while you were saying the Shema did you follow the teaching of the sages and accept the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven?” “Of course” answered the exasperated student. “And did you feel a hint of rebellion against God?” “Chas v’shalom,” replied the pupil, “God forbid, of course not… never.” “Then you have never said the Shema” replied the Rabbi. [This is how I remember the story… for a more toned-down version see a Nice Patch of Grass by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair]

Such an unvarnished challenge to religious caution and timidity lies at the heart of Rabbi Wolbe’s concept of choice insightfully cited by Rabbi Held.

But the few pages allocated to his weekly essay  does not permit Held to expand on the depth of Wolbe’s challenge and his explicit critique of his coreligionists.

I have posted the complete text below from Wolbe’s book Alei Shur, and you can follow the Hebrew text and listen to Rabbi Yoram Bogacz read and translate here (start at minute 10:38) with a great South African accent!

Permit me to provide a further excerpt.

Wolbe writes:

“It is possible that an individual can live out his days and never make a choice! Imagine a person with a pleasant disposition, who has not moved from the upbringing that he received at his parents home, he fulfills the commandments … as he was taught, his predispositions strengthen him in his [rote] behavior (he is considered a tzadik – righteous person) and no trials occur [to shake him up]. Amazingly, he could live out his days, with  good name and without him having actually chosen a path through independent intellectual review!”

Wolbe continues:

“Its an extreme example, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is on rare occasion that we make choices in our lives.  “Everything is foreseen, and freewill is given” [Ethics of the Fathers 3:15] but in truth we are governed by our natural disposition, our education, habits and biases both in terms of the fateful decisions in life and also the small day-to-day decisions… and where is the choice?” ואיה הבחירה

Between Rav Wolbe and Rav Held, we are fortunate to have teachers who challenge us to choose… and now the choice to choose is all ours!


ale shor 3

aleih shor 2

aleih shor 1

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Filed under Bible, Judaism, mussar, Religion, social commentary, Torah, yeshiva

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