“When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”
This insightful quip from Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra, was one of his many lines that make us scratch our head. On the one hand, he’s right: “when we arrive at a fork, we have to take a path.” On the other hand, that’s not what he said; his words suggest taking both paths, straining the laws of both logic and physics.
Choosing to go in one direction over another can be a challenging thing to do. We all know someone who struggles to make decisions, who waffles back and forth between option A and option B (and options C, D, and E!), or maybe we are that person ourselves. Often what makes the process of choosing so difficult, even if we have done the processes of decision and discernment that we as a congregation have already explored this Omer season, is that choosing closes certain doors.
When we are deciding or discerning, we get to imagine what might be, creating a myriad of possibilities to ponder and get excited about. Choosing has the opposite outcome; when we finally choose, we foreclose some of those possibilities, even ones we may have been excited about. It’s often the fear of being unable to pursue those possibilities that makes it hard for us to make a choice. But usually, we have to.
This week’s Torah portion, the combined Tazria-Metzora, offers us a series of instructions about how the priests and the community would handle certain medical realities, like the aftermath of childbirth, the presence of a potentially communicable skin condition, and various bodily discharges. Each scenario has a set of criteria that must be met to invoke certain responses, and many of them leave it to the priest to make a determination, like “how many days has it been?” or “is there a hair coming out of the middle of that mark?” Based on that determination, the priest would take or not take certain steps.
In each situation, as the priest was weighing the options, the potential consequences were doubtlessly on his mind. “If I determine this isn’t tzara’at (the skin condition), this person can go on living their life uninterrupted. But if I’m wrong, they will endanger the rest of the community. But if I err on the side of caution and guess that it’s tzara’at, and I’m wrong, I am going to make this person miserable for a not-insignificant period of time.”
Up until a few years ago, these question of health outcomes and communal responsibility felt very abstract, just musings from thousands of years ago about a high priesthood that doesn’t exist anymore, treating an unknown illness in a society long gone. But this is the fourth time we have read this portion since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Before the pandemic Tazria-Metzora felt foreign, and since then phrases like “fourteen-day quarantine” and “rebound case” have become part of our lexicon.
What both tzara’at and the COVID pandemic have also taught us is how difficult it is to make decisions when we need to assess risk.
When we make a choice, we might choose a path that we think or believe will lead us to a particular outcome, but that is never certain. When we get in the car to drive to work, or to school, or to someone’s home, we have every expectation that we will arrive safely. Just in case, we put on our seatbelt and drive cautiously and defensively to make it even more likely. But if we let our mind wander into its darker places we know that there is a risk to everything that we do.
Our brains work better with zeros than with infinitesimally small numbers, so they convince us that a very small number is zero. That’s how we can tolerate the small risk that something might happen with the car; we drive safely and assume that all will be safe. It makes it much, much easier to choose.
What made the start of the COVID pandemic all the more challenging is that we really didn’t know what might happen if…if we wore a mask or not, if we went to work or school or not, if we went to the grocery or not, if we wiped down our mail and groceries or not. We starting doing all these things that we thought and hoped would lower our risk, but we really didn’t know. And for so many of us, myself included, that was one of the most challenging parts of living through the pandemic. We knew that we had to make a choice, but we didn’t know how to, and our anxiety went through the roof.
What we know is that eventually, we have to choose. We have to weigh the options, decide and discern, and make the hard choice to foreclose certain options.
The hard part, and the opportunity for us to expand ourselves spiritually, is in developing the confidence to do so.
The high priests of the Torah had to do that on behalf of the community. Our medical professionals did their best with the knowledge they had to guide us. Each day, we have to make choices and live with them. When the great poet Robert Frost advised us to take the road less travelled by, he did so only after he lamented, “And sorry I could not travel both.”
Rabbi Karyn Kedar taught that “the spiritual path is a zigzag, a switchback up a mountain…exhausting, riddled with doubt and setbacks.” But, she concludes, “There are so many ways to get us where we need to go.”
As we continue our journey of the Omer, from Pesach to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai, from the freedom from enslavement to the freedom to live out our fullest lives, may we be blessed with choices that lead us towards the good, the prosperous, the safe, and the meaningful.