Today, the Jewish people start over when we read Bereshit, the Hebrew word for “in the beginning”. But what I have come to realize during my yearlong study of my parasha is that many people are not so fortunate as to be able to start over and have a new beginning. Some people make moral choices that change their lives forever. Why do we make the choices we do? How do we resist temptation and make good moral choices?
These questions arise from the beginning of time, in Bereshit, when G-D creates the world and Adam and Eve. G-D warns Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Adam does not heed God’s warning and eats the apple from the tree of knowledge after the serpent convinces Eve that she could eat the forbidden fruit. G-D banishes Adam and Eve from the garden of good and evil and punishes all their descendants. From here on, humans no longer get a free pass – when we make moral choices, we must live with the outcomes of our decisions. Today, I would like to share with you three examples of people who made moral choices that greatly affected their lives in serious ways and tell you what I have learned from their collective stories.
“That’s when I began to pray/ Lord show me how to say no to this/ I don’t know how to say no to this”
These words could easily have been uttered by Adam before he took a bite of the forbidden fruit. But if they sound familiar, you probably recognize them as the lyrics from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. The lyrics are part of a song when Alexander Hamilton thinks about having an affair with a stranger. One regretful night, Hamilton comes across a helpless woman, Maria Reynolds, who claims to be in an abusive marriage, begs Hamilton for help and ultimately invites Hamilton into her house starting a lengthy affair. Although Hamilton begs for G-D’s help in “saying no to this”, G-D obviously does not prevent his mistake. Similarly, when Eve reaches for the apple from the tree of knowledge, G-D does not slap Eve’s hand away but rather lets Eve make the mistake of taking the apple. This decision nearly ruins Hamilton’s marriage and political career, but Hamilton’s worst decision came many years later when he agreed to a duel with Aaron Burr. While Burr fired his pistol, Hamilton held up his gun as a sign of respect. Hamilton died, leaving his kids fatherless and his wife a widow for nearly another 50 years.
Amar’e Stoudemire said he was “the best player I’ve played with at any level.” Carmelo Anthony said he had “skills that evoke comparisons to Allen Iverson.” He might have been the first guard ever drafted directly out of high school. He might have been…except you have probably never heard of him. He is Jonathan Hargett, a high school basketball sensation, and top ten recruit in the class of 2001, who just a couple years ago was released from a five-year prison sentence for dealing drugs. Hargett began smoking marijuana in 7th grade and selling small amounts of drugs; by high school, he was smoking whenever he could. Hargett began bouncing around high schools and suffering academically. He committed to West Virginia and after a good start to their season the team lost 18 of their last 19 games with Hargett playing selfishly and shooting arbitrarily. He stopped listening to his coaches. His draft stock plummeted. He returned to Richmond, began selling drugs and was arrested with 40 grams of cocaine hidden in the ashtray of his car. His story shows the domino effect of making poor decisions.
Likewise, Len Bias was the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Known as “the successor of Larry Bird” and considered “the next NBA superstar,” Bias already had a Reebok contract worth $1.6 million and a promising career. But 2 days after the draft. Bias collapsed to the ground and had a seizure. He was pronounced dead at 8:55 am of a cardiac arrhythmia, due to his use of cocaine. Bias was only 22 years old. His story connects to Bereshit because all of them – Len Bias, Adam and Eve – gave in to temptation and made a decision which, in a split second, changed their lives forever. Len’s decision to use cocaine was partly influenced by his friends, just as Adam was convinced by Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. All of their lives were changed drastically by one brief moment of time where the thoughts of others trumped their own thoughts.
As Rabbi Kushner explained, we live in a world of good and bad, and our moral decisions decide our outcomes. We don’t always have a guiding hand to help us make good moral choices. God did not stop Eve from picking the forbidden fruit. God did not stop Jonathan Hargett from doing drugs. God did not stop Len Bias from ingesting cocaine. If we want to make unwise choices that hurt us and the ones we love, God will not stop us either. How do we say no to this? By realizing that if we say yes to this, we can ruin our lives, and the lives of those we love. That insight, not God’s intervention, can help us make the right choice.
Abraham Wyett, Grade 8 Student at Schechter