17 Sep 2015

Nitsabim/Rosh HaShanah 5776: Roundabout

Nitsabim/Rosh HaShana 5776: Roundabout

When we try to collect information about the world around us, we tend to be guided by our biology, and our attention flows effortlessly toward the sensational — not the relevant so much as the sensational.”— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, ‘The Black Swan’
Thanks to early human development we are used to thinking in clear terms of cause and effect. We tend to relate to much of our world through simple mechanics. If we are thirsty, drinking brings us satisfaction. If we are building a house, more work will lead to more apparent results. Yet, in our complex world much of reality is in fact nonlinear. Not all actions yield direct and easily detectible results. Learning is not a purely causal endeavour. My learning does not necessarily grow in proportion to my studies. I might spend many years learning about something and only after a certain undetermined amount of time come to understand it. I cannot necessarily go through clear steps in order to fully absorb it. I might practice a sport but there is no clear indication of how many hours are required to gain particular levels of performance.

Many of us can become disheartened when our actions do not yield clear and immediate results. We become frustrated when the world doesn’t respond as easily as it would if we could just push a button. Fortunately though, human beings need not live entirely in the world of cause and effect. We may share these perceptions with other animals but if we choose to live in our conscious minds, we come to identify a world in which higher value exists through non-direct and nonlinear realities. We know that love does not grow in direct ratio to the number of hugs and kisses we share or the number of times we say we love someone. We know that honour is not enhanced incrementally by individual acts but by a complex interrelationship of interactions, words, and gestures. To provide step by step instructions for such things would be futile. While relationships between variables are clear and constant in linear situations, nonlinear outcomes cannot be gauged by how much we put in but by the commitment to a process. Daily and committed practice and study creates a better musician, there are no defined mechanical steps. It is for this reason that Moshe asks us to choose ideals that are laid before us in perashat Nitsabim rather than specific acts.

See, I set before you today life and good, and death and ill.… (30:15)

Rambam emphasises the fact that in the above verse Moshe is charging us to choose a path in life rather than specific actions.

License is given to every human being. If one wishes to turn towards a path of good and become righteous, the license is in one’s hand. If one wishes to turn towards a path of corruption and become corrupt the license is in one’s hand…as it says, ‘See I have set before you today life and good and death and ill…’[1]

Th e reading of this parasha before Rosh HaShana puts us into an effective mindset regarding our involvement on the day. Rosh HaShana presents us with the question of whom we wish to become as opposed to what we wish to do. We are to choose whether we wish to become righteous or immoral rather than to commit to specific New Year’s resolutions. We choose a path instead of deeds because life and the nature of our relationship with G-d is not linear. It is an emergent system that grows through steady and committed endeavours; we achieve greatness in life through staying the course. For this reason the Hakhamim steer us away from focusing on direct results regarding mitsvot.

Be careful with light mitsvot as with weighty mitsvot for you do not know what the mitsvot yield.[2]

What is worrisome is that in many of our current religious teachings it would seem that we have fallen back into the primal animalistic approach to life, tying all of our spiritual growth to causality. We focus on accomplishing specific mitsvot for specific outcomes, we are taught to say specific chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) in order to get responses for specific issues as if G-d is some grand computer in the sky that has calculated outputs for specific commands. To look at our own lives and our relationship with G-d in such a paradigm cheapens Torah, our lives and our relationship with Him. A mitsva is precious because it is a step on a path to love and meaning. Reading Tehillim is not done in order to prompt G-d to do something for us but rather to speak to Him of our feelings and needs in the most beautiful poetry with the hope that our dialogue and expressions of care will cultivate a deep and passionate relationship with Him.

Our world is one where the linear realities of cause and effect are the exception and the nonlinear realities of emergent outcomes are the rule. It is a world that puts freedom and choice into our hands so that we might pour our hearts into the universe and wonder at the astonishing and unexpected fruits that it returns.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 5:1,3

[2] Abot, 2:1