The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice

By: Rabbi Uri Allen Posted: October 8, 2019

Kol Nidre 5780

There was a vignette I remember from Sesame Street growing up. A mother asked her son to go to the grocery store to get a quart of milk, a stick of butter, and a loaf of bread. The little boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, repeated the list out loud before he left his house. He repeated it to himself as he walked the couple blocks to the store… a quart of milk, a stick of butter, and a loaf of bread. It became his mantra as he navigated the aisles of the store… a quart of milk, a stick of butter, and a loaf of bread. And finally he returned home successfully with all the items that his mother wanted… a quart of milk, a stick of butter, and a loaf of bread.

That little scene would be nearly impossible to create today don’t you think? Consider how many types of milk there are in the dairy section at the grocery store? What about types of bread or butter? The 21st century child would likely have a more difficult time remembering the list and accomplishing this favor for his mom.

Let’s put some numbers on it. If I were to ask you how many kinds of salad dressings there are in your local super market, how many would you guess? 50? 60? More? What about types of cookies? 20? 30? How about soups or toothpastes?

The average super market has something like 175 different salad dressings, 230 types of cookies, 40 kinds of toothpaste, 75 iced teas and 230 types of soup. We haven’t even ventured down the cereal aisle or the toilet paper aisle! It is a fairly regular experience for us to have this level of variety from which to choose. Low fat or not fat? Organic or not? Soy milk or almond milk? How about oat milk or rice milk? And don’t get me started on eggs!

Remember when there were just eggs? Now we have free range, organic, free range and organic, white eggs and brown eggs, pre cooked eggs, or just the egg whites. All I want is to make an omelet!

Barry Schwartz, in his book the Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, recalls going to buy jeans at a popular clothing store known for their denim. He walked into the store and said, Hi! I’d like to buy some jeans size 32/30.  Excellent! Said the clerk. Would you like, slim fit, relaxed fit, easy fit, regular fit, baggy, or extra baggy? Do you want them stone washed, acid washed, or distressed? Button fly or zipper fly? Faded, treated or regular?

After a few moments of considering his options Barry returned to the clerk and said, I just want regular jeans. You know, the kind of jeans that used to be the only kind? The clerk didn’t understand what he meant, but was able to speak with an older employee at the store for some guidance.

So we’ve covered the grocery store and clothing stores. But this abundance of choice is really everywhere, even in more consequential places. It’s even at your doctor’s office. It used to be that you went to the doctor, you told them what was wrong, and they told you how to treat it. Nowadays, you go to the doctor, you describe your symptoms, and they say something like, “Well, you have a few options. Option A has these benefits with these risks and costs this much, while option B has a different set of benefits, risks, and costs. Which one would you like?” How should I know?! That’s why I came to the doctor!

I’ll bet that if we think about almost any area in our life, – education, career, romance, parenting, religious observance, tv, movies, music, communication, and the aforementioned food and clothing, just to name a few – the amount of choices that we have compared to 20, 30, 50, or 100 years ago is mind boggling.

The preponderance of selection and choice we find in our world is a feature of western industrialized societies who posit a basic premise – it’s what Shwartz calls the ‘official dogma’ of western, capitalist, culture – it goes something like this:

In order to maximize the welfare of our people, we must maximize individual freedom, and a very good way to do that is to maximize choice. What could be more free that the ability to choose between dozens or hundreds of kinds of products? This surely will allow each person to make the choice that is right for him or her, without infringing on someone else’s freedom to make a different choice for themselves.

Now this sounds logical and reasonable right? Some people like chocolate and some like vanilla, and some prefer mint chocolate chip. BTW mint chocolate chip is the only acceptable choice, but I digress. We have different tastes and different needs at different times in our life. It’s nice to have a choice. The more choice we have, the more free we are. The freer we are, the higher chances of us living a life of well- being. That makes sense doesn’t it?

But it seems that with the abundance of freedom we all live with, the amount of thriving that actually is created in our societies and in us personally is less than what we would have imagined. You see every choice for something, is also a choice not for something else. If I choose entrée A of the menu, I am deciding to not choose the others. What if the others are better, or cheaper, or healthier? It’s as if our whole society has some kind of pathological FOMO – fear of missing out – that many, including Barry Schwartz will argue, is a direct result of having so many choices.

In the best case scenario, even with overwhelming options, we each choose wisely what is best for us, with no lingering doubt over what could have happened with a different selection. We are completely confident that we made the right choice, are satisfied with it, and don’t give it a second thought. At worst though, given the sheer number of decisions we might face in any given moment or day or week, what can result is a kind of paralysis – the inability to choose or to be meaningfully satisfied with our choices because we are always thinking about what we did not choose.

A New Yorker cartoon that I saw put it best – a couple is sitting on a private beach in the Hamptons. It’s a beautiful day; a cool breeze sweeps in from over the water on the two enjoying a relaxing summer day. The man turns to his wife and says, “I can’t stop thinking about all of those empty parking spots on West 85th street”. It’s hard to argue that choosing to spend a beautiful day on the beach was a bad decision. But the cartoon really sums up the problem with too much choice in that we can’t help think about what we’re not doing, what I did not choose, even when I made a choice that was, by some objective standard, good.

You can see where he gets the title of his book – the Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. We will come back to this in a bit.

But let me make a sudden turn to the reason why we are all here tonight. It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. We have come to repent, to pour out our souls before the Almighty, confessing our sins before the seat of judgement, which we pray is also the seat of compassion. What does this have to do with choice?

Well, lets go to the opposite end of the spectrum and talk about Purim for a moment. Wait, what? Yeah, Purim. Let me explain.

The full name of Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim – the day of atonement or probably better, the day of cleansing. In the Bible, this day is when the people take part in rituals of kapparah – or cleansing. The people are cleansed of their sins, the priests are cleansed of their sins, the Temple itself is cleansed of any spiritual residue from the previous year.

The Zohar, the 13 century master work of Jewish mysticism teaches homiletically that the kuf in Yom HaKipurim should be read as the preposition – like. That renders Yom HaKipurim not as the day of cleansing or atonement, but the day that is like Purim. Now stick with me on this. The suggestion is that Yom Kippur, our holiest and most serious day of the year is like Purim, the silliest and perhaps most irreverent day of the year. Are there similarities between the two days?

Yes! Quite a number of similarities in fact but they are similarities of opposites. Let’s take a look at a few.

1)  Dress – On Purim we dress in costume as some say to allow our true selves to be able to emerge from behind our masks. On Yom Kippur, we also dress up – we dress as the righteous and better people we hope to be.

2)  Food – On Purim we are commanded to feast and eat and throw parties in excess. We are commanded to enjoy food and drink until we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. On Yom Kippur we move in the extreme opposite direction – we refrain from all food and drink and material pleasures, in similar measure, to highlight the stark difference between us and the Holy one of Blessing. Fasting allows us to focus on our spiritual needs, while indulging in the party on Purim is meant to have a similar effect.

3)  Purim is a day on which we celebrate the salvation of our nation from the hands of the wicked Haman. On Yom Kippur we pray for our individual salvation from our own wicked ways.

There are other similarities as well, but these are all kind of on the surface. A deeper look reveals a truth in the Zohar’s statement. Yom Kippur is just like Purim! It’s all about something called Goral. You see, both Purim and Yom Kippur have a goral.

Goral means lots or chance. Megillat Esther tells us that Haman and his cronies hipil pur – hoo hagoral – they threw lots a pur, which is also called goral, to determine the day the Jews would be wiped out. On Yom Kippur there is another goral – two really. We are commanded to take two goats, identical in size, value, and appearance. One is slaughtered on the altar, and one is burdened with the sins of the people and sent into the wilderness. Goral is the word used there as well.

In Purim, where the presence of God is hidden, a potential message is that the fate of the Jewish people is left to chance, to the throw of the dice or the drawing of lots. Our destiny is tied to the unpredictable whims of capricious and buffoonish Kings and their sycophants. It’s a crap shoot. The world is random and chance rules the day. Yet in response, the Megillah is clear that despite God’s absence and the seeming randomness of the world, Esther is compelled to act, to choose to stand up for her people. As Mordechai says to her, ‘Who knows if you ascended to the throne for a moment like this”. The randomness is mitigated by Esther and Mordechai’s sense of agency that they could make a different choice.

And what about Yom Kippur and the goats? Well, there too is a similar message, just in the inverse. On the day when the future well being of the Nation of Israel is on the line, when the full presence of God is manifest not only in the world but in Jerusalem in the Holy of Holies, when the high priest actually pronounces the ineffable four letter name of the Almighty, when we think that things are not random but guided by the will of merciful and compassionate and loving God – it is still all left to chance! There is still a message that tells us that the world is basically random – this goat or that goat – it doesn’t really matter. Even in the full presence of God – the world is still random.

Now, I admit that this is not a very inspiring message. Do whatever you want, because it’s all random anyway? To counter this and its implications, the Rabbis reworked Yom Kippur after the destruction of the Temple to include notions of personal responsibility, of teshuva, thereby mitigating against the seeming random picture the bible painted for us. And Purim likewise is not taken at face value. Despite no mention of God in the Megillah, there is a strand that teaches that it is not God’s absence that is felt but rather God’s concealment. Either way, and in both cases, faced with the challenge of seeing the world as out of our control and accidental, choice rises to the top in the face of pure fatalism or determinism.

This is perhaps an oversimplification, but I think it’s there. Purim, with its picture of a godless world, where things are random and by chance, is no worse than Yom Kippur despite God being very close. To put it another way, Yom Kippur is a parody or a satire of Purim. Most of the time, we tend to think it works the other way around – that Purim is the parody of real life. But the Zohar would like us to see the opposite – today is a day like Purim. And since today is a day like Purim – the way to battle against the random is lean in to choice and free will.

But that brings me back to the paradox with which we started. Choice, having choice, and being free – is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Decision-making can create anxiety, doubt, and depression over the path not chosen, and as studies have shown, we are generally less satisfied with what we choose, even when we choose well.

And here I’d like to connect this thread to what I spoke about on Rosh HaShannah for a moment. If you recall, Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, upon recognizing how stuck he was, cries himself to death. But the commentary I offered is that what really happened is that he was finally released and free at last.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously taught about two types of freedom or liberty – negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from – freedom from oppression and from being told what to do. Positive liberty is freedom to – freedom to make of your life what you want, freedom to have meaning and love and companionship…it is the freedom to choose. Freedom from and freedom to often come one right after the other. Without being free from the tyrannies of life, we won’t fee free to do almost anything.

But sometimes, having freedom, having choice as a principle is useless if it creates difficulty in making a decision or dissatisfaction in our choices. One example on point perhaps is our choice in elected officials. We have a completely free choice, our whole government is based on this type of autonomy and power. Yet how often have you heard folks decry the available choices as all being corrupt, or crooked, or problematic in some way. We exercise our choice through voting but lots of us are not satisfied. Lots of people choose to not participate at all for these reasons.

Choice is only good and meaningful, if it’s meaningful and good. If our choices are difficult to navigate, if we are not content with what we selected, then of what value is having choice in the first place?

It is indeed a paradox. What was meant to provide greater freedom and autonomy and lead us to greater thriving and well being, seems to be doing the opposite to us as individuals and as a society at large.

This is where the bigger decisions in life matter and make a difference. It is by choosing things – people, and communities, and systems – that make claims on us that we willfully limit our choice. When we choose our spouse, by definition we remove our ability to choose someone else. When we choose to bring children into our lives, we drastically put limits on our time and resources. When we commit to a community or a synagogue, we give up some aspect of our autonomy in order to live our lives together. And when we choose a life of Torah, we close the door to lots of other choices we could make in the world. We are only truly free to choose, and have that choice mean anything, when we ourselves impose restrictions on our options, and stick to them.

There is a tradition to take the number of the new Jewish year and find verses or gematria or an acronym that might correspond to a message or intention for the coming year. Frequently this is done without the thousands. So this year our number is tav, shin, peh, – 780. tav, shin, peh, – 780. One phrase that equals that number is osek bemitzvot – to immerse in mitzvahs. This is a neat little suggestion for how to maximize our choice by limiting it. That is to say to have commitments and obligations, not only rights and freedoms. It could mean to become more observant in Jewish ritual, but more broadly, mitzvoth – commandments, obligations, duties, and responsibilities of all kinds – are devices that we choose precisely to limit our choice.

Oh God who sits on a throne of mercy, who deals with us in kindness, help us to know just how free really are. Give us the strength and wisdom to choose wisely as an outgrowth of our deeply held convictions and obligations. Remind us of the gifts in our lives, so that we may turn to you and the world in gratitude. May 5780 be a year of true freedom and of true choice, because we have clearer vision to know that more is in fact usually less.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah