Pirke Avot 2:1

The Rabbi says:

Which is the proper path that a person should choose for himself or herself?  Whatever path is a credit to them and earns the esteem of others.

The Rabbi (perhaps better THE Rabbi) is Rabbi Judah HaNasi – Judah the Prince.  He had a well-deserved reputation for his scholarly work as well as his humility.

We have several key concepts within this saying.

First – that our lives constitute a ‘path’.

Second – that some paths are better than others.

Third – that we choose our path in life, it isn’t just handed to us or dictated to us.

Fourth – that we can recognize when we and others have chosen good paths to follow.

Fifth – others will hold us in their esteem when we have chosen properly.

So, let’s take a look at each of these key concepts.

Our lives constitute a path. The underlying idea here is that our past, present, and future are connected.  What we do, the choices we make, and the relationships we develop are tied together – connected by one common factor – ourselves!

Theologically we talk about living in this moment, right now.  In this ‘right now’ we are the sum of our past actions, choices, dreams, and even DNA.  In this ‘right now’ we look toward, and live toward,  the future.  The future does not hold limitless possibilities for us – but a great many possibilities nonetheless.  Our future is affected by our past and by our present, as well as our inherited DNA.   At 57 years of age and in so-so health a future as an NBA star is not there for me – no matter how much I might desire it and work toward it.   Likewise – I cannot be a ballerina, a mother, an astronaut or many such similar things.  At this point I am who I am.  However – the future DOES hold many options.  Perhaps I will move to another part of the world.  Perhaps I will retire and do something completely different from my occupations the last 30 years.

The point that our wisdom is based on is this – our past, our present moment – the ‘right now’, and our futures are closely intertwined.  BUT, the past does not determine our ‘right now’, our ‘right now’ does not determine our future.

Some paths are better than others.  This may not be self-evident.  What do we use to assess what is ‘better’?  The amount of money we will earn in our lifetimes?  If so – some professions are clearly better than others, certain choices in investing etc. are better than others.  But the rabbi doesn’t mean for us to use accumulated wealth as our measurement tool.

Perhaps we are to use ‘happiness’?  or credentials and diplomas?  or the number of children we have?  or the size of our houses?  or how nice our yards are? ….

None of these are what the rabbi is suggesting.  ‘Better’ is measured by all of the accumulated wisdom of our religious traditions.  What is loving and good?  Am I in good relationship with God and with others?

We choose our path in life.   It isn’t a given.  It isn’t determined for us by our genes or our upbringing (though both have a real impact).   In this moment I have been shaped by my past choices and actions and learning – but I remain free to choose what I do now.  In this moment, as I look toward the future and live toward a future – I can choose from among the options in front of me.  And I have a wide range of options in how I will act and what I will do.  We have free will.   We can make good choices in spite of the obstacles our past and present may put in our ways – with help from others and from God.

We can recognize when we and others have chosen well.   We see in our own lives and that of others whether or not their lives have substance and meaning, whether or not they are in right relationships with God and with others.  We can see it and we can know it.  Some folks have an integrity that we recognize.  Not that they are perfect, of course, just ‘together’ in a good way.

We hold such folks in high esteem.  We may admire the self-made millionaire.  We may long for someone who is physically beautiful.  Such things are fleeting.   We hold in high esteem those who are aware of the deeper mysteries of life, those who have lived lives of integrity, those in a right relationship with God and with others.  These we remember.  These we hope to emulate.  (In our Catholic tradition we call them saints – only a few of which are official and well known.)

  1. What is the path your life has taken?  Where have the twists and turns been?
  2. What have been the important choices?
  3. Are you in right relationship with God and others?  Why or why not?
  4. What are you going to choose for tomorrow?