There is no such thing as “having no choice.” There is always an alternative. In fact, the choice we make in any situation says something about us to others, and something about us to us.
The first part of that last statement is pretty clear: If we are short-tempered people, be wary of us. If, on the other hand, we are kind and generous, those around us will respond in kind. The second part of the statement sounds confusing but it is as obvious as the first. Let me explain.
How we act creates self-definition. We form an opinion about ourselves based on what we do. Psychoanalyst Erving Goffman tells the story of a man who walks on the beach determinedly not looking at anyone. He walks with a stride that says, “I do not see any of you. I am busy doing something very important. You can tell by my gait, by the way I gaze at distant objects, by my indifference, that I am outstanding.” While striding along the seashore the man dons a mask that causes him to imagine that he is above all.
And he wonders later why everyone is so distant.
Here’s another example. A woman wears the persona of a sharp businesswoman. Her words are terse. She does not tolerate idle conversation. She is methodical and critical of anyone who says anything “stupid” or meaningless. When she looks in the mirror she ties her hair tightly back without looking too closely at the reflection she does not like.
The Mishna tells of the great sage Hillel who passed a stream one day and saw a skull in the water. He remarked, “As you have done to others, so others have done to you.” Hillel was commenting that the way we treat others will come back to us. Yet, I suspect he was saying something even more profound: Hillel was sounding a warning. If we behave cruelly, we will come to believe in cruelty as a way of interacting with others. The way we are seen is the way we will ultimately see ourselves.
That is why our faith places such a strong emphasis on how we behave, the way the talk, how we treat one another, and the way we approach God. All these things impact others and the world. But they also impact us. Nasty words spoken by us make us feel nasty, unclean. For many, there is only one thing to do when feeling dirty by our deeds; do more of it, which is a downward spiral.
We have a Mikveh which is a demarcation point where we go to divest ourselves of the accumulated psychic grime. We have a daily “confessional” where we strike our breast and beg for a new beginning (new self-definition). And, of course, we have Yom Kippur as a grand, large scale opportunity to change.
I like to think of the many holy days that dot the Jewish calendar as moments of potential transformation too. Shavuot is coming. Least appreciated of all the festivals, Shavuot celebrates God’s ultimate gift to the Jews; Torah. We pray, sing, and study into the long hours of night as we seek an encounter with the Holy One, blessed be He. Such an experience would alter the trajectory of our life. Perhaps every mitzvah is an invitation to change how we are viewed and how we perceive ourselves.
There is a tale about a man who once rigged an electric battery to his doorbell. He was happy when he heard a loud ring when someone pushed the button. He then connected a wire from that same battery for a light in his bedroom. However, the light did not work. So he called an electrician who examined the contraption and said, “Don’t you know that it takes more power to shine than to make a noise?”
It may take more power to shine but when we do, we are radiant.
Rabbi Jonathan Case