At each moment, as people in an open society, we have the freedom to choose our actions. Every action we take builds on the previous. For example, if on a regular basis, you act with integrity and honesty, after a while, this becomes part of your character. It becomes difficult to act otherwise.
Similarly, when you continually close your eyes to the truth or act only in your own self-interest, this, too, gets baked into who you are.
At the same time, I believe in redemption. At any moment, people can choose to reverse a pattern of dishonesty and begin to tell the truth. It is always possible to do teshuvah, to turn back around, to return to goodness.
Please do not underestimate or take for granted our freedom to choose.
Erich Fromm, a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the US, became a noted psychologist and wrote:
“Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more is he determined already by the previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical and spiritual destruction.”
We are in the section of the Torah/Hebrew Bible where we encounter Pharaoh and his hardened heart. This story challenges us to consider issues that are alive today.
Pharaoh is the depiction of evil – even as the plagues decimate his land and his people, he grips power and holds his slaves captive, and allows his own people to suffer. He keeps being asked by Moses to let the Jewish people go, he refuses.
Erich Fromm’s point is that having acted so long with evil intent, Pharaoh is simply unable to act otherwise. Many of the rabbis agree with this point of view.
Our Freedom to Choose
Simple acts of kindness add up. In the same way, what seems like white lies, committed over and over again, can ultimately limit our freedom to even know what the truth is.
This is why, when our kids were little, we taught them simple things like “please” and “thank you” – these were precursors to treating others with courtesy and acknowledgment.
Please know that little actions and choices matter. Do not take for granted the freedom to choose to do right that we have. And also know that Pharaohs live today. And still, we work to build a world where truth and right and justice will win.
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