Friday, April 29, 2022

Is Life's Lottery in Our Hands?


Two brothers were major power brokers in Boston from the 1970s to the 1990s. William "Billy" Bulger was the President of the Massachusetts State Senate, and later the President of the University of Massachusetts system. His older brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, was the boss of the Irish mob, and the head of the feared Winter Hill Gang. One Bulger brother dominated the political world, the other the underworld. Their contrasting yet overlapping lives are a Shakespearean tale and the subject of multiple books and movies.
William Scott Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854
Our very fascination with their story betrays an inner uncertainty about free will. It surprises us that the Bulger brothers made such dramatically different choices, because we expect two children with the same home and the same parents to turn out pretty much the same. Most people tend to follow conventional paths and avoid the road less traveled by. For most of us, the Bulger saga is difficult to comprehend: How is it that two brothers could be such opposites?
A similar riddle stands at the center of the Yom Kippur service. Two identical goats are brought to the entrance of the sanctuary, to be dedicated as sacrifices. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, draws lots (two wooden plates, one inscribed with the words “to God,” and the other “to Azazel”), to determine the fate of the goats. The one which receives the lot with the words “to God” was sacrificed, and its blood brought into the inner Sanctuary, the Kodesh Kodashim. The one which receives the lot inscribed “to Azazel,” is sent into the barren wilderness and pushed off a stony cliff. The disparity between the fate of the goats is exceptional; one is brought into a place of profound holiness, the other to a place of desolation and godlessness. The goats stand together at the beginning, but end poles apart. For this reason, the Midrash says the two goats represent Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who pursue dramatically different destinies. But the riddle remains: Why do Jacob and Esau end up being so different?
Multiple commentaries explore why the goats are chosen for their tasks in such an unusual way. All other sacrifices are designated explicitly; why is the fortune of these two goats decided by lots? Two very different approaches are offered in response to this question. One view sees the lots as an allegory about the importance of free will; another sees them as a metaphor for the random nature of life.
Don Isaac Abravanel, and later, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, see the lots as a symbol of free will; which animal is chosen for which task is literally in the hands of the Kohen Gadol. (Abravanel insists that the Hebrew word for lot, goral, is actually a synonym for reward; the lot that is drawn is a reflection of the reward due.) Two identical animals are offered the same destiny at the very same time; what happens next depends on the choices that are made. As Hirsch puts it:
"These (two goats) are the symbols of the two paths between which we are to choose.... we are all faced with the decision between God and Azazel. We all stand at the Sanctuary entrance to choose… the choice is not predetermined for any of us…"
According to this perspective, the two lots represent good and evil; the direction we end up taking depends on our own choices. On Yom Kippur, the ceremony of the two goats places free will at the center, a critical reminder that every person can change their own destiny and repent.
One cannot underestimate the psychological and social value of believing in free will. Societies that are optimistic about the possibility of change are the ones in which change occurs. Students who think that they can change are the ones who learn the most. Psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the educational impact of having a growth mindset, the belief that one’s skills can grow through effort and perseverance. Belief in free will is in itself transformative and a powerful motivator.
But there is another interpretation of the lots, one which, considering the importance of free will in Judaism, is rather unconventional. It was first offered by Rabbi Isaac Arama (a study partner of Abravanel's), as well as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. They interpret the drawing of lots as a metaphor for randomness. The Kohen Gadol would put his hands into a basket and blindly choose the lots for Azazel and for God. Where each goat ended up was merely a matter of luck. This interpretation argues that the same is true of life; who we are and what we become is often random. Rav Soloveitchik writes that this randomness is central to God's forgiveness on Yom Kippur. He says that “man is acquitted by his Maker because man is vulnerable…. He is easily persuaded, indeed brainwashed, and quickly defeated… Man sins because he is a weakling. Some are saints and righteous people because they were born into a home of saintliness and righteousness. Some are sinners because they were born into a house of atheism and agnosticism. Should the wicked be found guilty? Is he not wicked because he is vulnerable to external pressures?”
According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the central service of Yom Kippur is not about belief in free will, but rather our lack thereof. Who we are is very often determined by random factors, by events that are very much out of our control. Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates an idea which Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel would later call “moral luck.” As Nagel put it, “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930." Much of who we are and what we become is attributable to dumb luck.
This view emphasizes that Yom Kippur is not just a day of change, but also a day of forgiveness; and man is forgiven because much of what one does is determined by the luck of the draw.
Psychologically, this second interpretation is very significant as well. Very often failure is beyond our control; but even though we have no choice, we often feel profoundly guilty that we failed. To be able to forgive oneself for an unlucky lot, to recognize that one is forgiven by God when they failed to reach heroic standards, is critical to starting the new year with a fresh slate.
These two interpretations are polar opposites; one champions the role of free will, the other emphasizes the influence of luck. Reality stands somewhere between the two; many choices are made for us, but plenty of choices are made by us. Much of what we do, both good and bad, are the products of our environment and our circumstances; but as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler put it, there is always a point of choice, a small line in the moral battlefield, where we do exercise free will. Life is both random and intentional at the same time.
This duality may offer us another way to understand the Yom Kippur service. The goats stand as symbols of equal opportunity, while the lots signify chance, because free will and random luck stand side by side every day of our lives. Yom Kippur teaches us that as fragile, vulnerable beings we deserve forgiveness, but as remarkable, heroic beings we must earn it as well. Life is a dual reality of choice and coercion.
People who struggle with addictions recognize this dual reality. Making the right choice in the face of genetic predispositions and overwhelming cravings is difficult. And while correct choices are never easy, they are the only way out; and one isn’t always successful at first. One must choose the right path, but at the same time realize it may still be some distance away. The serenity prayer, which is used in many twelve-step groups, encapsulates this duality. It says:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Hopefully, we will be able to do the same on Yom Kippur.

No comments: