Small Choices, Big Outcomes
Greatness is built upon our seemingly insignificant daily choices.
Early one morning Sean Levi was in his San Diego jewelry shop before opening hours. Roger, a diamond merchant, came in, eager to sell Sean some small diamonds. They haggled over the price. A volatile man, Roger stalked out, hurling venomous words behind him.
A traditional Jew, Sean always brought his tefillin with him to work and would put them on and say, “Shema Yisrael,” and other prayers. That day, Sean took the tefillin out of their boxes, and started to don the tefillin of the hand when he noticed something shiny on the floor. He picked it up and saw that it was a large diamond, around five carats, probably worth $50,000. It must have fallen out of the diamond merchant’s pocket.
Sean decided he would call Roger as soon as he finished his prayers. He was not a thief. Keeping a diamond that didn’t belong to him was not even in his realm of choice. Sean proceeded to put on the tefillin of the hand, wrapping the straps around his arm and fingers. Then he put on the tefillin of the head and picked up his prayerbook.
What would be wrong with letting Roger squirm for 15 minutes?
At that point his true choice hit him: How could he pray when he had property that didn’t belong to him in his possession? How could he commune with God when another person must be in major distress searching for his missing diamond? On the other hand, Roger had treated him nastily that morning. Why should he interrupt his prayers just to calm Roger down? What would be wrong with letting Roger squirm for 15 minutes?
Sean knew the Biblical story of Abraham and the three nomads. Abraham was in the midst of a prophetic encounter, communing with God, when he noticed three nomads passing. He interrupted his mystical experience in order to bring the nomads into his encampment, refresh them, and feed them. The lesson, explains the Midrash, is that it’s better to be like God than to commune with God.
Sean made his choice. He put down his prayer book, picked up the telephone, and called the diamond merchant. “I can’t talk now!!” Roger yelled crossly into the telephone. “I’ve lost a 5-carrat diamond that didn’t even belong to me. I’ll be paying it off forever!”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Sean informed him. “I found the diamond in my store. It’s waiting for you right here, safe and sound.” Having delivered his message, Sean then turned his attention back to God and recited his prayers.
The jewelry shop was open for barely a half hour when an unshaven old man wearing dilapidated clothes stopped in front and peered into the window. He beckoned to the salesgirl to come outside. The man looked like a homeless vagrant who couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee, let alone Sean’s least expensive piece. The salesgirl flashed Sean a look, but dutifully went outside and asked, “Can I help you?”
“How much does that necklace cost?” the old man asked, pointing.
Trying to suppress her laughter, the salesgirl replied, “That necklace costs $20,000.”
“And how much are those earrings?” the old man queried.
The salesgirl, playing along, replied, “Those earrings cost $10,000.”
“I’ll take them both,” the old man announced.
He entered the shop, and, reaching into a torn leather pouch he was carrying, counted out $30,000 in cash, as Sean and the salesgirl watched in shock.
A couple hours later, a bag lady came into the store. Wearing frumpy, mismatched clothing, she put down her bags and started browsing. She picked out a few pieces, totaling $20,000, bought them, and trudged out.
From these two unlikely customers, Sean sold $50,000 worth of jewelry within a few hours of returning the $50,000 diamond.
The Choice Box
The small choices in our lives are the rungs of the ladder of the high diving board from which big choices make their grand leap. The righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust did not rise to their exalted level on the dark night when they heard a tremulous knock and opened their door to find a frightened Jewish family seeking refuge. The greatness of these heroes was formed gradually over the years — every time they were riding on a bus and got up to give their seat to an elderly or infirm person. By such repeated small choices to relinquish their own comfort for the sake of a needy person, they made themselves into the people who, when faced with the trembling Jewish family at the door, would say, “Come in. Yes, I’ll hide you.”
Every day each of us is faced with seemingly small choices:
- To yell at an errant employee (or child) or to wait until you calm down.
- To put your change in the tzedaka box by the cashier or to pocket it.
- To tell that juicy piece of gossip by the water cooler or to keep silent.
- To call back the person you told, “I’ll call you back,” or to run off because you’re late for the gym.
- Whether or not to say, “thank you” to the driver as you exit the cab or bus.
- Whether or not to let in a car inching in from a side street.
- Whether or not to pick up and dispose of a piece of litter on the street even though you didn’t drop it.
According to Judaism, God controls everything in the universe except our moral choices. “Free will” refers to that area beyond heredity and environment where you can go either way. Whenever you feel an inner push-pull (“I really should pick up that litter, but I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”), you are in the realm of your own free choice, known as your Choice Box.
Everyone has an individual Choice Box. Some people would not anguish over whether or not to lend $500 to an out-of-work friend. If you would never consider doing it, it’s above your Choice Box. If you would do it as a matter of course, with no hesitation, it’s below your Choice Box. If you would struggle with, “He really needs the money to pay his rent, but chances are he won’t be able to pay me back, and there goes my pool membership for the next season,” then you are within your Choice Box.
Every choice we make creates us.
Your Choice Box is like an elevator. The button you press will determine whether you go up or down. The decision you make about whether to lend your friend the $500 or keep it for your pool membership will either catapult you to a new level of generosity or fling you down into a new level of self-absorption. Every choice we make creates us.
Small choices are significant because if you never put your change in the tzedaka box and you throw out every charity appeal that comes in the mail, then lending your friend $500 for his rent will never even enter your Choice Box.
Sean was not faced with The Big Choice whether to pocket a $50,000 diamond or return it. Keeping the diamond was below his Choice Box. Sean was faced with A Small Choice: whether or not to pray first and delay returning the diamond till afterwards, letting someone who had yelled at him squirm in the meantime.
Whatever we do, God shadows our actions, as the psalmist says, “God is my shadow on my right hand.” By reporting the lost diamond before praying to God, Sean was in effect saying, “God sees me. God doesn’t want my prayers while I have this diamond in my possession.” Therefore, God responded by sending Sean the two unlikely sales totaling the amount of the diamond as God’s way of saying to Sean, “I see you.”
God notices our small choices. Isn’t it time that we notice them too?