Updated: Jul 13
Free Will and Parshat Nitzavim
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, we are told that there are blessings and curses before us, and we should choose life.
R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that “ choosing life” means that there must be effort and thought on our part. It doesn’t happen by chance.
Free will is one of the cornerstones of Jewish belief. But are we really free to choose? Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah teaches that the question of free will is “longer than the land and wider than the sea.”
While we don’t have control over much in our lives, we can learn to control HOW we react or deal with different situations.
And here comes the promo for mindfulness. When we meditate and pay attention to our breath, we are more present in the here and now. The breath is always right here and right now, and it’s always with us. And if we can learn to be more present with whatever we are experiencing, we can slow down and choose not to allow our habitual responses to kick in. These responses can be knee jerk reactions that we later regret. So if the cashier in the supermarket tells me she is closed just as I put my stuff down after waiting fifteen minutes in line, I might have some choice in how I react after taking a few deep breaths. I give myself some “breathing room.”
Mindfulness practice simply means that you choose to be aware of what you are doing, when you do it, and that you don't just respond automatically. Is it that simple? How free are we really to choose to free ourselves from habits and instincts, and negative reactions that harm us and those around us?
When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there. They don’t disappear, but they're less likely to control our thoughts and actions. Instead, they become mere thoughts and feelings that we observe and then can decide whether, and how, to act upon them.
We do have some freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example, to ourselves and to others, if we just stop and remember that this is a possibility. The same is true for being patient, curious, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and any number of other qualities we want to foster. These can be conscious choices. We just have to stop a moment and remember it is possible to act in that manner, and then choose to do so.
The choice is also in deciding whether we dwell in thoughts or feelings, or do we simply notice them without engaging them or becoming reactive. We first acknowledge when we notice thoughts, feelings or sensations. It’s like a wave coming at you when you swim—first you have to notice that it’s coming, then you may ride it or dive underneath it. You can’t choose whether the wave comes at you or not, but you can choose how you meet it. When we realize that there is a choice—that control is not necessarily in the content of our thoughts or feelings, but rather in how we deal with them —then we can take control over our life. Here is a short mindfulness practice to cultivate the freedom to choose where we place our attention
Start by finding a comfortable place to sit, where you won’t be disturbed. Sit up straight, and relax your shoulders. Close your eyes or focus your gaze on a spot in front of you. Take a breath as you become aware that you’re breathing. And take a moment to notice the physical sensations of the breath– perhaps in your nose, or your chest, or your stomach as it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath Pause.
Take a moment to notice If you feel an itch, tingling sensation or any other physical distraction …. Observe it. Then take a breath. After your breath, you can choose how you are going to react to it—or not react to it.
Take a moment to observe any thoughts that might arise as you sit. (pause). On the next out-breath invite your awareness back to focusing on your breath.
Notice which thoughts pull at your attention and which ones you can let go. It doesn’t matter how many times you need to bring your attention back to your breath. The moment that you’re aware of a thought that’s distracting you, escort your attention back to your breath.
Take some time to notice any feelings that might be coming up, such as frustration, sadness, joy or anger, and when you become aware of any feelings, acknowledge them, and invite your awareness back to your breath.
Bring your awareness to any sounds around you -- traffic, birds, an appliance, the phone ringing or a child crying -- notice if you have a tendency to want to look or check it out. Take a deep breath. After your breath, you can decide whether or not the sound was worth investigating.
Observe sensations in your body. If you notice a pain in your shoulder or an ache in your back and want to change your position, take a breath before you do anything. Then make a conscious choice—of moving or staying still. It’s OK to move or shift or change positions during your meditation, as long as it’s done with awareness.
It doesn’t matter how many times you need to bring your attention back to your breath. The moment that you’re aware of a thought, feeling, sensation or sound that’s distracting you, that is a mindful moment, a moment where you are strengthening your ability to choose where to place your attention. Take a few more moments in this practice if you'd like.
As you transition out of this practice, try applying this mindful awareness to your everyday life. Notice the point where you are triggered or distracted. Notice emotions and thoughts that arise, as well as sounds that distract you. Observe it all … and then mindfully make a decision on how to respond.
The Torah commentator, Kli Yakar, explains that one person’s behavior can affect everyone. My behavior and reactions not only affect me but anyone around me. Every action I make has a consequence, like a ripple in a pond.
In a few days, we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of the year when we look back and reflect on what changes we might like to make. We look at our behaviors and hopefully try to become more aware of what we need to work on in ourselves. Mindfulness meditation can help us in this process of reflection and “return” to the person we would like to be.
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