Bechira—free choice, is a core dimension of our humanity and a foundation of our belief system. As Rambam articulated repeatedly (see Hilchos Teshuva chapter 5, shemonah perakim, chapter 8), if we are not free to choose our course of action, there is no meaning to and no accountability for mitzvot. It is because we are free to choose our path in life that we must work to identify and follow the mission and actions that Hashem seeks from us, as we read in our parsha (30:19), “u’vacharta vachaim—choose life.” Rabbeinu Yonah—in his classic Shaarei Teshuva (3:17)—understood this verse as dictating a mitzvah to properly exercise our free choice and notes that the Torah presents its highest values—such as choosing life, studying Torah and emulating Hashem in our refinement of character—as positive mitzvot.
In describing choice as a mitzvah, there is an implication that we can live life without making choices. This idea was elaborated upon by Rav Eliyahu Dessler in his oft-quoted thesis regarding what he called “nekudat habechirah—the choice point,” where he noted that much of the time we are not making active choices but rather living on established patterns that we, our parents or our social circle established for us by choices made long before. Each of us has good things that have become built into our routine that we do without even thinking. It is only at the choice point that we have the opportunity to move the line of scrimmage—shifting our life’s pattern by making a choice to move things forward—to take our lives and assumed behaviors to the next level. It is in this dynamic space of choice that life really happens. It is there where we live today as today, not as a simple replay of yesterday.
Every morning, we make two brachot before we recite the Shema. The first notes Hashem’s creation of the routine of nature as seen in the cycling of day and night, sun and moon. The second bracha recalls when Hashem interrupted that routine by exercising His bechira, His free choice, choosing the Jewish people from all the nations, habocher beamo Yisrael beahava. That choice was made—as noted in the bracha that follows the Shema—by the disruption of nature and routine through the miracles of the Exodus. Indeed, Pesach is the time when Hashem made a choice that completely changed the direction of our lives.
Rosh Hashanah—on the other hand—is the anniversary of when Hashem created the routine of nature and when He looks to us to defy our nature and routine and make change by our own choices. This is the season where we reflect and consider our future direction, shifting that choice point in our own lives and in how we will define our field of service and accomplishment.
It is our task during this precious time to make those choices that will ensure that we live today as today—not as a replay of yesterday—even as we envision and build a far better tomorrow, moving things forward for ourselves and for klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.