There are five possibilities. One: Adam fell.
Two: he was pushed. Three: he jumped. Four:
he looked over the edge, and one look silenced him.
Five: nothing worth mentioning happened to Adam.
The first, that he fell, is too simple. The fourth,
fear, we have tried. It’s useless. The fifth,
nothing happened, is dull. The possibilities are these:
he jumped or was pushed. And the difference between them
is only an issue of whether the demons
work from the inside out or from the outside
in: the one
~ “Essay on Adam” by Robert Bringhurst (b. 1946)
My wife introduced me to this poem a number of years ago, and it has resonated with me ever since. What strikes me most about it is the subtlety to which it draws our attention: the line between what happens to us and what we make happen ourselves. Our modern sense of self is built on a notion of agency–our decisions as rational actors are what define us as human beings. Behavior which is irrational, behavior that is coerced, doesn’t carry the same legitimacy. In the modern world, the demons are meant to work only from within.
Yet, to borrow a phrase, “stuff happens.” Life is not only the story we write, the decisions we make for ourselves. As much, if not more, comes from what is beyond our control: the decisions made by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them, that resulted in us being born in the time and place we were; the decisions of governments and armies and business people; the decisions of so many people beyond us. These decisions and events shape us.
I raise this now because this week’s double-parasha, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, dances around this point of decision. While last week’s parasha dealt with the things that happen to us, this week’s seems to focus more on that which is in our control: the people we sleep with, the ways we behave, the actions we take or fail to take to uphold the ideal of kedusha, holiness.
Central to the parasha of Acharei Mot is the Yom Kippur ritual. And at the center of that ritual is the casting of lots. Two identical goats–according to the Rabbis, identical in every respect–are brought forward, and lots are cast. One of them is to be sacrificed to God, the other will have the sins of all of Israel confessed upon it, and will be thrown over a cliff in the wilderness.
The word for lot in Hebrew is goral. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote movingly of the notion of a brit goral, a “covenant of fate.” One of the essential aspects of this covenant, and of Yom Kippur, is recognizing that our lives are not simply the stories we write for ourselves, though we must be responsible for that which is in our control. As important, if not more so, is realizing that our lives are a tapestry, woven of our own choices and those of others that wind up affecting us. We are not the authors of our destiny; “the universe” (the colloquial stand in for “God” these days) is.
This brings us back to the poem. The “one theological question” referred to is this one: where does our own story end and the story of another begin?