Individuality’s role in God’s directions

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I enjoyed your response to the two religious-school students in last week’s column comparing God’s involvement in the lives of mankind to a GPS.
That leads to another question in my mind. Since a GPS gives very clear directions of how to go, how does that leave room for freedom of choice? Furthermore, if we’re being “told” exactly where to go, what’s really our part in all of this … where’s the room for individuality and making a unique contribution?
— Jennifer B.
Dear Jennifer,
Great thinking! I love the depth!
We can analyze this on a few levels. Firstly, how many people do you know will have on their GPS but … they know better! With an advanced system, the GPS is factoring in traffic jams, closed streets due to construction and the like, but many will still choose to ignore the directives and try to figure it out on their own.
In the classical work The Path of the Just (by Rabbi M. C. Luzzatto, Amsterdam 1738), this world is compared to a maze. Kings would have a huge maze cut from shrubbery, and people would try to reach the middle. Those who reached the middle would climb a pedestal and watch the others, pointing out that they’re sometimes headed toward a dead end, although it looked like the straightest path to the middle. People could decide to trust those who made it, or try to make their own way, ignoring the advice from above. His comparison is to the true righteous people who have “made it,” and have risen above the confusion of this world, seeing clearly which paths lead toward, or away from, perfection. We can also use it in the context of our GPS from Above — whether or not we will notice, listen to the subtle hints sent our way to gently guide us along the proper path. Every person has the free choice whether or not they will heed those hints.
This leads to the next point. The subtlety of the message given to us through these Heavenly hints, and even through the Torah itself, is quite different from the GPS. We give the GPS the destination; it tells us precisely how to get there. The Torah, however, tells us the destination and often leaves to us the path to get there. Referring to the methodology of Talmud study, which has been compared to crossing the ocean, a great rabbi once made a famous analogy. R’ Yisrael of Salant used to say, “Many have crossed the ocean, but nobody has yet paved the way.” Each individual adds their unique understanding and feelings to the study of Torah.
Similarly, my mentor, the renowned sage R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach ob’m, made a statement to me concerning certain differences in customs in Jewish law. I asked him which one was preferable. His analogy was, if someone wants to get to the back of the house, he can walk around the right or the left side; either way he’ll get to the same spot!
As long as one is walking along in the right direction, Judaism leaves much room for individuality, all within the same system. There is, undoubtedly, a part of the system which is black-and-white and there’s no room to veer off from that. There is also, however, a lot of gray space which leaves room for individuality and spontaneity. Those are the places where a person can make their unique contribution. The GPS of Torah will get us to the right place if we listen to it. Unlike the GPS which shows only one route, Torah and God Himself leaves the individual multiple ways to fulfill His will. It could be through the deep piety and Kabbalistic service of the Sephardic Jews, the joy of the Chassidic movement or the scholarship of  Lithuanian Jewry, and myriad strains within all of the above and many more who all serve God, within the framework of Torah, in their unique and beautiful ways.

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