April 30, 2020

Parshat Shavua – Achrei Mot/Kedoshim

A double Parsha, this week we learn many laws. We also learn about the role of chance in our lives. At the beginning of Parshat Achrei Mot we hear about Aaron’s responsibility to place lots on two goats – one of which will be a sin offering and the other that will be sent off to die in the wilderness after the High Priest confesses the “iniquities of the children of Israel” on its head. At which point, it will be led off to die alone.

These goats do not have a say in what will happen to them, and Aaron does not control the outcome of the decision. The entire process is left to chance – a statistical probability that could go either way. But Chance is not just a statistical probability. There are other aspects to the concept of Chance that are important to acknowledge.

Chance – so much more than statistics.

One of these is Chance as risk. When we take a chance – attempt to do something that has risk attached to it – we are engaging one of the fundamental elements of strategy. We are opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure. And here as well, we find that there are levels of risk that are acceptable and those which are not. Understanding the difference between acceptable risk, and risk that is too great is often dependent on perspective.

That perspective is delineated by another strategic element – Doctrine. And, as we noted earlier, the two Torah readings for this week are chocked full of laws and rules. Many of these rules are connected to clear consequences, should a person not act in accordance with the laws. Functionally, these values present us with an understanding that taking a risk has consequences – some good, some bad. And we find in these two Torah readings a list of actions that are not permitted – some of which can lead to a person being removed from the People of Israel.

But we also find laws that teach us to act for the good – to revere one’s parents, to leave some of the harvest and vineyard for the poor, to judge fairly, to rise before an elderly person and show them respect, to be truthful in our business and maintain fair weights and measures. Each of these presents us with another perspective on the aspect of Chance – opportunity. While there are often risks associated with taking a chance, there are often opportunities to be had when one takes an acceptable risk. Here as well, perspective matters.

What does all this come to teach – that Chance is specific to you or your organization. Be wary of outside influences – as Maimonides points out, “It is the nature of man to be pulled/attracted to the concepts and actions of others.” (Dayot 6:1, author’s translation)

At it says “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws.” (Leviticus 18:3-4) Do not presume that others “know better” or that their Doctrine and values should dictate how you engage with Chance in all its forms. Instead, you should look inward and determine when risk is acceptable, where opportunity lies, and when you lack the necessary controls to determine the outcome of a certain situation.

As we reach the end of the readings this week we learn one last important lesson about Chance. The importance of letting go of the feelings – especially about a person – that negatively impact us and our decisions. We should not take on fault, or sin, because of another. This means we need to recognize that we cannot control everything or everyone and any resentment we bear only hurts us.

As Rav Twerski notes, this is the essence of the Serenity Prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous – that God should grant us the “serenity to accept that which we cannot change, the courage to change what which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So we must recognize where it is worthwhile to put our effort and not waste time on the futile.

As Rabbi Shneur Zalman said, “What is prohibited is forbidden, but not all that is permissible is necessary.” (As quoted: Twerski, Living Each Week, 242) Know that, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing. So it is imperative that we analyze Chance for ourselves, and accept that while others may see an opportunity we face an unacceptable risk or vice versa. This means that we may “miss out” but it may also provide us with greater control over the outcomes we face.

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